Things cost. My father passed away sneaking up on a decade ago. He was flirting with 90, a veteran. Dad lived with me those final years. I’m a night owl. He was an early bird. I’d be writing late and sometimes hear his yells and screams down the hall. Dad had nightmares.
My father, Walter Cieplik, was a veteran of World War II and Korea.
I’d sprint in and — urgently, but carefully mind you — wake and console. Pops would have the recurring dream of being trapped in a foxhole. Explosions. Gunfire. Yelling in a foreign language. Bayonets drawn, German soldiers would pour into his hand-dug pit and stab him. Weaponless in bed, Dad would kick and fight, swear and scream. You had to be careful waking him because, even in his late 80s, if the guy connected, you’d be sporting a shiner for a month. It takes a while to be pulled from that parallel universe of nightmare, to stop the freefall of facing your own, nonstop death.
My father was such a powerful man in his youth.
Dad’s first language is Polish. Mine’s pathetic. The literal translation of “What a man!” is “Co za gosc!” but I believe the Warsaw street vernacular is “Yaksha whop.”
What a man. That was my father.
For two winters, Dad slept in the snow of Europe. No Northface sleeping bag, just a half-tin-cloth tarp that didn’t quite cover all of him. Hot meals were rare. Then, there was the job description of killing Nazis and Nazis trying to kill him. His own Army tried to kill him because they kept trying to promote Walt into an elite Rangers’ outfit. Dad politely declined, pointing out that while this special fighting unit had the cool blue and gold diamond patch, a disturbingly high number of really tough mugs never made it back alive.
When I was little, I asked him if he had fought dinosaurs.
He chuckled. “Not too many, son…”
It was rare to see Dad laugh. I think, in part, that’s why I evolved into a professional life as a humorist. I wanted to make my father happy. He carried the weight of the world. At a Christmas Eve dinner party, rare, he talked about his service. My future father was marching in an infantry unit through Germany in 1945. Recalling with such clarity, he talked about that crunch of boots over a well-worn snow-covered road. It was in the final weeks of the war, when Hitler’s minions brought up old men and boys as young as 8 to fight. Early morning, he marched. With clarity, he recalled seeing the still-life statues of boys, frozen dead in snowbanks.
“How beautiful and angelic their faces were…” He smiled, sadly, his voice trailing off.
Dad was a really smart guy, worked on the B-1 bomber and yet, couldn’t operate a microwave oven or cell phone. He confessed that in 1944, “a darn shell went off a few yards from me.” It sent him flying, knocked him unconscious. He had trouble hearing the rest of his life. He said: “I was never quite right in the head after that.”
Dad was in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II — Anzio. He actually chuckled about it, recalling mindlessly scampering down a rope ladder, following other soldiers. The air was filled with the spray of sea water, clouds of gunpowder. Bullets pinged into the ocean. He remembered a fellow corporal breaking both legs, falling wrong as he climbed out of the boat. What made Dad laugh? With admiration, he thought, at the time, “Son. That guy was mighty darn lucky! He didn’t have to high-step it through the surf and charge machine guns…”
Best as he could, all my life, Dad was my protector, my cheerleader. He lived for four years on those god-awful C-rations. For the remainder of his long life, he adored fresh fruit and vegetables.
I taught Santa Clarita history. One of my complaints? We tend to worship generals, imbeciles, scoundrels, politicians and the inane. There was one, small, post-war anecdote, lost in a back issue of this Signal paper.
A local senior dropped out of high school in December of 1941. He served two tours, about 21 months each then. Like my father, this sergeant had an identical experience. He fought the German socialists. He battled in Italy, France and Germany, from his own recollections, twice in hand-to-hand combat. He stabbed to death two poor, unlucky young Germans via bayonet. He was wounded a few times, not enough to threaten his life, just enough to get patched up and thrown back into the insanity.
Can you fathom that? There’s no timeclock to punch, starting or ending a shift. Days begin and end with someone trying to kill you. Or you, them. The war ended. The soldier returned home, married his high school sweetheart and they immediately got pregnant. A young man in his 20s now, he looked harder, closer to being 40. Being a soldier can do that to you. I know his story by heart, told it dozens of times.
He made it home. He survived the bloodiest conflict — nearly 60 million perished — in the history of civilization. He was happy. He married the girl of his dreams and was going to be a father.
And no one was trying to murder him.
He was driving home from deer hunting, down Pico Canyon. A carload of drunken teens did what thousands of Nazis couldn’t. Speeding on the wrong side of Pico, they hit him, head on.
He died. Not in Normandy, but in his home town of Newhall.
I don’t know why. To this day, his story breaks my heart, makes me sad, angry, at the patent unfairness of war, always foolish, often necessary, fought often by good and simple men and women who can never be thanked enough, who, on Memorial Day, sometimes will never get to hear the words, “Dad…” or “Honey…” or our profound gratitude.
John Boston is a local writer.