Finally a Hero
Some visitors whispered words of prayer and encouragement, while others spoke of renewing old friendships at a less somber occasion. The mourners followed a common path as they entered the parlor then trudged toward the casket.
Three elderly men in the back of the room remained isolated for quite some time, appearing relaxed as they observed the procession. The widow spoke with them for just a few seconds when they arrived, but she’d not embraced them as she had most others.
The men’s gaze locked on a young man who shared in greeting the guests. He was at that age when he was too old to be categorized as a young adult yet leaning to middle age all with one event.
The visitor voices together created a myriad of tones that frayed that young man’s nerves and echoed in his ears. He wanted to bolt from the room into the cool autumn air but held his ground. He represented his family now, and he knew his father was proud.
The band of men intrigued him, and he slipped away from the greeting line to meet the trio before they left. Their eyes followed him as he maneuvered a path to reach them.
“Hello, Robert.” He grabbed the extended hand and was surprised by the strength in the grip of this aged gentleman.
“I apologize, but I don’t remember—,”
“I’m Lug. We’re friends of your father.”
Robert noticed the use of present tense and had admonished himself numerous times in the past few days for the same mistake.
“I hope you don’t mind us sitting back here waiting for the crowd to thin. Clutch here,” Lug nodded, “he don’t do real well in crowds with his oxygen tank and all. Besides, he’s a bit self-conscious about this stainless steel horse he’s strapped into.”
Clutch wheezed, “I…am…not.” Each word was interrupted by a rapid shallow breath. “It’s just…that you…can’t…drive.” He peered up from the chair as if searching for validation. “Lug guides…this…wheelchair…and uses…my feet as…bumpers.”
The final man of the trio interjected, “Well, I’m Sparky.” His handshake matched his appearance, frail and unsteady. “Please don’t take my friends seriously, Robert. They’ve been arguing since 1942 and neither one has made a valid point yet. That’s forty-five years of bullshit.”
“Gentlemen, I’m very glad you came.” Robert returned to his insulated greeting of the past few hours.
Sparky continued, “Lug here is nearly blind, but he’s the only one with the strength left to push Clutch in his chair. And Clutch, well he really doesn’t need that chair. I mean, he’s no cripple or anything. He only has one lung and just can’t catch a deep breath.”
“And we couldn’t come without Sparky,” Lug interjected. “He insisted on driving.” He grinned at his slight barb. “But Sparky missed his damn treatment ‘cause Clutch didn’t trust me to drive.”
“You can’t…even see…a wall. How…could you…drive…five-hundred…miles?”
This was quite the group. Robert was certain he would have remembered them if he had met them before.
“I can guide the wheelchair through the crowd if you gentlemen would like to pay your respects now,” Robert offered.
The trio glanced at one another before Sparky explained. “We would appreciate it if we could wait ’til there were fewer people around. It’s just that we have something we want to do for Axle. It’s a ceremony of sorts.”
Axle. Robert hadn’t heard his father called that name since he was a young boy. Only his very oldest friends knew his dad by that reference.
“You knew my father during the war.”
They each nodded without a word and their eyes shimmered.
“We served in the same platoon. We were in—.”
Robert interrupted. “Same platoon, Jesus. I know who you guys are now. You were in the POW camp with my dad.”
He knew his father had been a POW for twenty-eight months during World War II, but always refused to speak of his imprisonment. This reminded Robert of his father’s nightmares, and how the angry wails would wake him when he was a child. He would then find his father sitting in a cold sweat on his favorite chair as he stared into oblivion. The only relief that Robert could offer was a game of gin rummy at 3 A.M., but the source of his father’s anguish was never disclosed.
Robert blocked the movements and sounds of the entire room as he focused on the vacant years of his father’s past.
Sparky continued. “Yeah, your dad was Axle. Back then, we all had nicknames and we were sort of fond of automobiles. So, when we landed in North Africa, we assigned parts of cars to each other as nicknames, and they stuck. It was Axle’s idea. Just another thing we owe him.”
“How did you know he passed away? I never knew who you were, so I didn’t call you.” Robert said.
Sparky replied. “Well, we kept in touch with your mom. We actually met you back when you were a little tyke, maybe five or six. Your mother never cared for us too much. She said that after we would speak with your dad, his nightmares would get worse for a while. And then when he had his stroke and couldn’t talk, well, we just wrote letters.”
Clutch raised his arm at the elbow as a sign to interject. “We…owe our lives…to
The trio took a moment to gaze at each other, and Lug nodded back at Sparky, who continued. “Your father was hero. Did you know that?”
Robert remembered his dad. “I knew he got quite a few medals, but he never shared their history. But yeah, he was a hero to me.”
Lug’s bass voice projected authority. “Did he ever tell you what he did? How he got us out?”
That was a mystery that Robert could never convince his father to reveal. His mother had just told him he escaped from a POW camp, and that’s why he had nightmares. That didn’t give enough detail to Robert, and his father would only say, “Maybe someday when you get older, I’ll explain it to you.”
That day never came, and Robert learned this history was simply too painful for his dad to discuss. He finally stopped asking.
Sparky continued. “We were in Stalag IIIB in Fuerstenberg, not far from Berlin in early 1945. We knew our side was making progress towards winning the war because the Red Cross no longer was permitted to visit. The guards were becoming more aggressive and took out their anger on the most weak and helpless. Conditions were bad.”
Clutch shifted in his chair and dabbed at his eye. Lug patted his shoulder and nodded again towards Sparky.
“We heard artillery in the distance. The next day, about half the guards were called to the front. Prisoners were dying every day, and burial detail was our exercise. We hadn’t been fed for seven days and existed on a small stash of food we had secreted over time.”
Robert stood riveted to Sparky’s words as the reasons for his father’s nightmares were untangled.
“One morning, we woke and half the barracks were empty, and another half of the remaining guards were gone as well. We were told the prisoners were being moved to another Stalag which had food and supplies, but we didn’t believe it. You need to know that we were all in very bad shape. We were so weak we didn’t think we could make the march to another prison camp, even if that story was true.”
“Axle shook us before dawn and ordered us out of our bunks. He was covered with blood and had the eyes of a madman. We figured we were dead anyhow, so we followed him. He guided us outside to the rear of the barracks and we hid in the shadows.”
Lug said, “We didn’t know the plan. Axle wouldn’t say anything. He just stared at the guard towers.”
“I thought you wanted me to tell this story, Lug.” Sparky said as he frowned, then continued.
“As I was saying, we were scared and confused. We were almost afraid of Axle. We’d never seen him with that look before. Clutch told Axle we were waiting for nothing; that the guards would change soon and then they would probably start our march. Axle just glared at Clutch and murmured, ‘The guards ain’t getting relieved.’ At the hint of first light Axle handed us a set of keys and an envelope he had tucked in his pants. He told us to wait and slipped away. We watched the guard towers as the Nazis paced, expecting their morning replacements. A single shot sent chills through us. A moment later, your father burst around the corner and grabbed me and started dragging me. Lug hoisted Clutch over his shoulder and followed. One German soldier lay crumpled against the sidewall of the barracks, and another was slumped over the guard tower. Your dad had slit the throat of the guard that came down from the tower to check on their replacements, and then he took that guard’s rifle and shot the other guard in the tower. We had the damn keys to the main gates and walked right out.”
“Wasn’t…quite that…simple.” Clutch gasped his critique of Sparky’s rendition. “Pretty much. The remaining guards were as stunned as we were, and probably expected an alarm and the morning shift to rush from their HQ any second. That never happened. By the time they started shooting, we were almost to the woods.”
Robert sat and started to process these rather unbelievable words. The enigma of the nightmares had been revealed.
“Thanks, guys. I never knew. This explains a lot about my dad, especially his nightmares.”
Lug bent his tall frame and whispered into my ear. “That’s not the whole story, just yet.”
Robert lifted his head and noticed the clouds that were enveloping Lug’s eyes, as Sparky rested his brittle self next to the young man and continued.
“We were out, but had nowhere to go. We quickly realized that we probably just hastened our own deaths. We had no shoes, little clothing and faced a snow-covered forest behind enemy lines. Axle explained the envelope contained our Stalag IDs and told us to huddle together in the brush. The ID papers would identify us as American POWs and not spies or escaped Jews. He tossed the rifle into the woods and told us to forget it. If the Germans found us they would shoot us for certain if we were armed. And then he just walked off. We never learned how he had taken out the three or four Krauts that were sleeping at the headquarters barracks, but it was obvious that’s exactly why they didn’t relieve the morning guard.”
“About mid-day we heard a peculiar jingle of a bell and Axle coasted in on a bicycle with a young boy riding the handlebars. Axle had this shit-eatin’ grin on his face, and the demons were gone from his eyes. Your dad’s feet were a bloody mess, but he didn’t seem to care. The boy didn’t speak English except for one word, ‘chocolate’. Axle gave us two woolen blankets and promised he would return soon. Even with the blankets, we didn’t know if we would survive another night. The German lad didn’t seem bothered by the cold. He roamed and played in the woods but kept us within sight. Every so often he would come near us and smile like he knew something we didn’t, then would just say, ‘chocolate’. We hadn’t eaten for nine days and this kid was jumping about singing chocolate every few minutes. We heard the sounds of a distant battle but had little expectation of being found alive by friendly forces. Just before dusk, we heard approaching motors. Our young German friend hopped about the forest, repeating ‘chocolate, chocolate’. As we peered through the brush, there came Axle riding with a platoon of Russian soldiers and a medic wagon. The German boy showe no fear and was clapping his hands as he rushed towards Axle, who proudly paid the bicycle rental with a huge handful of chocolate bars.”
“Can I speak now, Spark?” asked Lug.
Sparky went silent.
“A few days later, the Russians liberated Stalag IIIB. We wanted to report Axle’s actions to our guys when we were handed over. You know, he was a real hero; deserved the Silver Star at least. But he wouldn’t hear of it. He got real agitated and got this spaced-out look and said, ‘Those guys we buried back at camp, they were heroes. We’re just doing our job. We’re not heroes, yet.”
“We never spoke of what he did until today.”
A reverent silence captured the group. Robert held his father in even greater admiration after learning of these heroics. He then recalled the request by these three men to pay a tribute to their companion, and he extended his arm toward the front of the room. Just about everyone had left the funeral home except for the widow and a few close family friends.
The trio aligned themselves parallel to the casket and Lug helped Clutch to his feet. A few minutes passed while Clutch caught his breath from this mild exertion. They each withdrew small metallic objects from their pockets. As Lug and Sparky rested their items in the casket, Robert recognized the shape of a large gold star with a tiny silver star superimposed in the center – the Medal of the Silver Star.
Sparky and Lug spoke in unison, “For Gallantry in Action.”
Clutch leaned over and placed a third Silver Star across Axle’s chest. “Finally…a hero.”