They are two of my heroes, but I never knew them. Not really. Pictured above are my uncle Jimmy (left) and my uncle Butch (right) before they shipped off to serve in World War II.
I knew them much later, in their fifties. Sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table while they drank black coffee and tore apart doughnuts and crumb cake, and solved the problems of the world. I dedicated my first novel, Blade of Dishonor, to these men.
“Another week shot in the ass,” Butchie is fond of saying. He’s the joker, with a hundred stories up his sleeve. After a mini-stroke, he forgot them all. “I lost the comedy channel,” he said. But they came back, one by one. Uncle Jimmy plays the straight man, but occasionally comes out with a biting comment that makes us all laugh.
Jimmy served in Bastogne. “Patton’s tanks saved our behinds.” His feet still ache from the frostbite he received. He put his boots in the campfire, but it wasn’t enough. He was 24 when he was drafted, with a wife and son at home. For funerals of soldiers, Uncle Butch wears his medals and uniform. He also served in Europe, and if I recall, was en route to the Pacific when the bombs dropped. That’s all I know, because they don’t talk about the war.
Uncle Butch once admitted that he regrets combat. He saw it as young men sent to war to fight someone else’s battles, killing each other for nothing. You fought for the guy next to you. Uncle Jimmy was more pragmatic. It was just something he did, trying to get home.
Yet I saw how it affected them. Around Veteran’s Day, VJ Day, VE Day. The tears of otherwise stoic old men rock us to our core.
After the war, Butch worked for a builder of construction equipment and collected old cars. He has a Model A with a rumble seat that was used in a Ford commercial, a Chrysler 300H, and until recently boated around town in a white Town Car three blocks long. Uncle Jimmy was a roofer, then bought a service station. When they retired, they joined up to do plumbing and roofing on the side. Uncle Butch will still stop at the curb if he sees a discarded lawnmower, take it home for Jimmy to repair while he’s watching the football game, and offer it up when yours breaks down. They kept busy into their nineties. They survived both their wives, caring for them when they became sick.
They grew up in the Depression, in a big Italian family. Living on fried potato sandwiches wrapped in newspaper, so you could read the headlines off your hoagie roll. Foraging in the woods when they were hungry. Uncle Jimmy became a hunter, with a cabin festooned with deer antlers. He hunted with a scope (and friends to point him at the deer!) after his eyesight failed, and I had a freezer full of venison–he called it “goat”–every season.
Uncle Butchie still goes out dancing, at 92. Uncle Jimmy’s cancer put him in the VA hospital. But his son takes him around, to check on the house, to visit family, and at 94, the disease moves so slowly that it hasn’t kept him down. They taught me that a sense of humor, a good heart, and a helping hand for your family and friends will keep you living well no matter what life throws at you. Tragedy, artillery, failure or success. They stuck together, and they’ve survived their wives, brothers, sisters, young and old.
And they’re still doing it.