John Boston | D-Day & the Busted Circle of J.Q. Adams

John Boston

D-Day was last week. That would be the World War II turning-point invasion of Europe. Not the robust brassiere cup size. June 6, 1944, was six years before I was born. I’m on this text message group of dear childhood pals. Most of our fathers served during the war and we exchanged stories last week. I’m a double winner. Both mom and dad wore the uniform. Mom drove a Jeep for Army brass at Aberdeen, Maryland, home of the fabled Proving Grounds. Dad shot and bayoneted people. 

My father, Walt Cieplik, served two tours. Right before D-Day, there is a forgotten bloody beach assault. Taking Anzio Beach in January of 1944 led to the Allied conquest of Rome a few months later. D-Day is more famous for its massive statistics, horror and bravery. It’s why, eight decades later, Americans drink beer, barbecue hot dogs and do oft-procrastinated home improvement projects on Memorial Day without thought to much tougher relatives than we who made that ultimate sacrifice of saving the world from Nazi Socialism. I know Nazis are Socialists. It says so on their letterhead. 

D-Day’s June 6, 1944, Normandy assault was the largest amphibious landing in military history. From 7,000 ships hailing from eight nations, nearly 200,000 naval personnel were involved. A staggering 113,000 troops stormed the beaches in that first assault, where 10% of the men died. More were wounded. In the chaos, many, without fanfare, were claimed by the sea. By the end of June, nearly a million soldiers landed, along with a staggering 148,000 vehicles and 570,000 tons of supplies. 

For those in public school? Our side won World War II. I know. I know. Too icky competitive … 

When I was in my early 20s, I was coaching high school basketball at Hart High, riding a motorcycle, sleeping late, playing poker to pay the rent, turning AYSO toddlers into Greek god status via penning inane sports stories at The Mighty Signal and chasing skirts. Sometimes, the skirts had actual women in them. My Dad, the sweet warrior? At that same age, Walt was sleeping on the ground, in winter, in the snow, and hunting the soldiers of Hitler and Mussolini. Often, they shot back. This still breaks my heart. Dad had hearing problems his entire life. An artillery shell exploded near him. Into his 80s, he’d ruefully observe of, “… not being quite right in the head” his entire life. An unseen war wound made him forever and strangely distant. 

That campaign was called Operation Shingle and began with the bloody beach landing at Anzio on Jan. 22, 1944. My dad led the charge. 

Anzio is a sleepy tourist town today, still surrounded by mountains and the thick Pontine marshes. Back in winter of 1944, in a surprise raid, some 36,000 men stormed the beaches. That attack would grow to 150,000 men. Casualties were epic. The Allies would suffer 7,000 fatalities that first landing, with another 36,000 wounded or MIA. In heavy war gear, many were washed away to sea. 

When he was 5, my dad lost his father, Stan Cieplik. Stan was hit by a speeding truck. On his hospital death bed, the grandfather I’d never meet asked his five small children to promise (those old enough to speak) to take their First Communion. Dad survived losing his father, lived through the Depression impoverished on a small farm and survived four years of combat in World War II. Laughing, Pops noted that living with my mother, insanity her constant companion, was the hardest test of all four. I’d have to agree. 

At a Christmas Eve dinner with friends years ago, Dad recalled marching across Germany toward war’s end. Hitler and his Nazis were conscripting boys as young as 8, handing them rifles and sending them goose-stepping to the front to die. At that long, festively decorated holiday table, bathed in candlelight, my father recalled the crunch of marching through ice in dawn’s first light. Frozen bodies of dead children were sticking out of the snowbanks. Dad smiled, recalling how beautiful, how angelic and peacefully still the children looked, cheeks all red from the cold. 

Mostly, my father never spoke of his war days. He relented more as he aged, once describing Anzio’s hellish landing, the smell of the ocean he never forgot, men screaming in fear, pain and exhaling the final noise we are all doomed to make. Dad never forgot the sound, the ping of bullets flying past. An unknown soldier in front of Dad was hit by an Axis round and claimed by the salt water. My father high-stepped it forward through the surf, firing his M-1 Garand rifle. Dad had the dearest smile, when he let it escape. He chuckled, recalling odd thoughts that swirled through his mind. As my father charged out of the amphibious landing vessel, a fellow infantryman caught a bullet in the arm and dangled in the rope rigging, breaking both legs. Dad guessed his fellow soldier would be taken back to the ship for medical treatment, rehab and hot meals. Dad said, laughing, “And I’m running toward incoming fire and I couldn’t stop thinking what a lucky son-of-a-gun that guy with the broken legs was …” 

I don’t know if anyone ever said it, Pops, but, “Thank you,” for taking Anzio Beach. Thank you, dear Dad, for your service. 

Memorial Day, a week ago and forgotten, I’m haunted by the words of our sixth president, John Quincy Adams: “I am a warrior, so my son may be a merchant, so his son may be a poet.” 

I question President Adams’ conclusion. Despite my father’s sacrifice as civilization-saving warrior, I skipped being merchant and went to directly into dawdling as a not-so-much poet but annoying court jester.  

The generation, lined up behind me? Is Adams’ observation a circle, forever incomplete? Does the legacy of modern America’s self-indulgence, loathing, ingratitude, lack of spiritual wisdom, honesty and common sense require karmic payment? Are The Poet’s sons and daughters, in humanity’s endless cycle, doomed to become the next generation of scarred and haunted warriors? 

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