My grandparents had one TV when I was a small child, and its black-and-white screen was perpetually tuned to M*A*S*H. I would ask to watch the Smurfs, but that station never came in. So instead, my grandfather laughed at the antics of Klinger and Hawkeye, and I resigned myself to playing with My Little Ponies on the red brick print linoleum.
Years later, when Pawpaw was wheelchair-bound and living in a retirement home, one of his nurses stopped me in the hallway. She gushed about the amazing stories he told of his time as a wisecracking medic in Korea.
Sometimes a nurse would tell me how much she admired Pawpaw for battling the Nazis during World War II. Later, a different nurse would launch into a detailed account of the frozen nights he spent saving lives in an Army medic tent, nearly losing his own fingers to frostbite in the process.
I could do little but smile and nod.
It’s impossible to know precisely how many of his stories were true, and how many were only true to him. He had a lifetime of stories to draw on, but often preferred the memories of his own creation.
Pawpaw knew his stories were a great way to get attractive young ladies to pay attention to him. Heck, it was a great way to get attractive middle-aged ladies to pay attention to him. Even not-so-attractive middle-aged ladies gave extra respect and consideration to the Major — who had seen active duty in at least two wars, who used to fly into enemy airspace on scouting missions, who had even been a spy deep undercover in the Soviet Union.
His tall tales annoyed my mother to no end. She could never understand why he couldn’t tell his own stories — the ones that actually happened. But for Pawpaw, the stories of pain and hunger just didn’t have the same ring as the ones where he got to be the hero.
Who was Pawpaw, really? He was the fourth son of a Jewish mother, who fled Russia to escape the pogroms. She was once the daughter of a wealthy merchant; she spoke seven languages and played five musical instruments. But life in America was hard, and she ended up in Wisconsin, married to an abusive German farmer. She bore him four sons before he left her for another woman. My grandfather was just a boy when she died of pneumonia in his arms.
That’s a story. But not one he liked to tell.
Pawpaw knew a lot about hunger, and want. There’s the story about how he and his brothers made it through the Great Depression, just the four of them. My grandfather was the baby, and he had to quit school and get a job when he was about 14 to help pay the bills. Every day he would leave the house to look for work, and every day he would return, telling his older brothers that there was no work to be found. After several weeks of this, one of his brothers followed him and caught him headed for the library, where he’d spent his time reading instead of looking for work.
Even though Pawpaw had left school in eighth grade, he went on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in microbiology and eventual set up his own lab. Up to that point, he worked every kind of job he could find, from grilling hash as a line cook to building bridges and roads with the CCC. But even as a microbiologist, he never had much money. Many nights, he and his family had to eat old K rations he got from the Army.
He served as an officer in the U.S. Army for more than 20 years. He never saw action on foreign soil, much to his chagrin. Instead, he trained young men to fight the Nazis, using broomsticks in field exercises instead of guns because the Army didn’t have enough munitions to use for both training and fighting.
But Pawpaw rarely told these stories. He was happiest when nurses and volunteers oohed and ahhed over his exploits as a soldier or a pilot, a combat surgeon or a spy.
His life, as he lived it, wasn’t worthy of the tales he wanted to tell. Starving isn’t glamorous, especially when you are trying your best to keep food on your table.
Pawpaw’s stories made him happy, and that is all the truth that really matters.