Finally, at the end, a son's glimpse into a father's life at war

Last March I wrote here about my friends Harley and Peggy Stahlecker, from my hometown of Crookston, Minnesota. Both had lost older brothers in World War II. Another brother of Harley’s, Milton Stahlecker, survived combat in the Pacific but came back a changed man.

When we talked this spring, neither Peggy or Harley had yet read my new novel, Every Common Sight. The main character is a World War II vet named Wendell Smith, a hero of the Battle of the Bulge, who brought back horrible memories of the battleground and a secret, the one thing about the war he could not share with his wife. It was a time before therapy and the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress when vets and their families were left to try and blindly cope with the aftermath of the gore and horror of what was celebrated as the Good War. That, essentially, is the story of the novel.

Milton Stahlecker

In early June I returned to Crookston for a wonderful event in the local public library. After my lecture, Harley came up as I was signing books. He shook my hand.

“There was a lot of Milton in your novel,” he said.

But it wasn’t so much what he said as much as the way he said it. Harley is now seventy-nine. His eyes had clouded over and he could barely get the words out through the emotion. Then he walked off into the night.

Every Common Sight is most often classified as historical fiction, and I had wondered about its relevance today, seventy years after the last battle of World War II was fought. I wonder no longer. Since the book was published this spring, I’ve heard from so many like the Stahleckers, for whom the war remains a real presence in their minds and hearts.

“Just finished it,” one reader wrote a while back. “Best compliment I can pay is I couldn’t stop thinking of my Dad. WWII and Korean War vet. He was quiet and humble like Wendell. I got teary eyed reading it. You did a marvelous job of being them to life. Thank you.”

In subsequent note he said: “Met with my mom this evening. Mentioned your book. She said Dad used to wake up screaming for first couple years when he got back.”

Another guy wrote: “Just wanted to tell you I enjoyed Every Common Sight. My Dad fought in Europe during WW II and I’m sure it was a cause of his struggles with alcohol and depression. So Wendell was a meaningful character for me, well-drawn and authentic.”

Last week, after talking to a group of English teachers about the novel, one of them said her father, another veteran of the Pacific, essentially drank and worked himself to death by the age of fifty. When she was young, the teacher said, her father would tell her stories of combat, typically when he had too much to drink.

Gary Sullivan, a radio personality from Cincinnati, has been particularly supportive of Every Common Sight, saying on his Facebook posts that he was one who grew up under “the watchful eye of a World War II veteran.”

I asked Gary to tell me more about his father. I’m glad I did.

***

His name was Richard Sullivan, an accountant by trade.

“My dad was a great man, but I always felt I never knew much about his life during the war,” Gary wrote to me last week. “Like many in that generation a hug, a kiss and encouragement didn’t come from him. He was a great provider and was always doing his duty.”

Richard Sullivan

Richard was eighty-eight years old when he died from a brain tumor two years ago. When told of his diagnosis, the old soldier said, “Well, game over then.” His doctor told Gary that World War II vets often dealt with that kind of news with the same stoicism.

“I had five months with him before his death,” Gary said. “He was uncomfortable with me hugging and kissing him each time I visited.”

But the son finally got a glimpse into his father’s life at war. A man in Richard’s nursing home, a naval flight surgeon in his sixties, had been working to capture the stories of veterans and convinced Gary’s father to tell his. The son listened in.

“On the first day overseas he was in a fox hole that was hit by a mortar and his buddy died,” Gary said. “My dad lost half his hearing.”

Just a month before he died, Richard told this story. He and eight other American soldiers were walking through a bomb-ravaged town when Richard asked to take the lead because he carried the only machine gun.

Gary and Richard Sullivan

“Five minutes later they were ambushed and he took out all the attackers,” Gary said. “He began to cry (which I never saw happen in my whole life) as he told this story. I said, ‘Well, I guess you saved the lives of all of your buddies.’ He looked at me with peace in his heart and simply said, ‘I guess I did.’

“He told the story and quickly went back to his quiet self… A very quiet tear, a shrug, and then we moved on. It was like hearing a confession. I think he always concentrated on the act of killing…rather than saving his buddies. I don’t think he was sorry for it but I think it was always eating at him.

“I felt happy for him and privileged (to hear the story). I think it was hidden deep inside and was a relief to tell it. My dad said many times that he was just doing his job…that he was no hero and other people really suffered. During the novel I was thinking that is so much the way that generation approached life. The ending stunned me. Hope this makes sense.”

It does Gary. It does.

(I would love to hear your stories, either from World War II vets themselves or family members. You can write to me at tsmadigan11@gmail.com)