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Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Greatest Man I Have Ever Known

"Life Recipes" by Alison, writing from Pennsylvania, USA

Grandfather, Fort Knox 1941 My Grandfather, Fort Knox 1941

A couple of years ago, my mother got a letter in the mail from my grandfather's driver during World War II. He was interviewed by one of his local newspapers about an experience he had while in Germany, and he felt the need to share it with us.

My own story with my grandfather all started when I was 6 years old.

My mother had re-married after the premature death of my father. While they were on their honeymoon, I stayed with my maternal grandparents. My grandfather decided to keep me occupied by taking me on little trips around the area he lived. Little did I know at the time that this would become a yearly event, but with one difference - each year we went further and further away.

The following years we traveled to Philadelphia, Washington, DC, New England, Colorado/Wyoming, and the last trip...three weeks in Europe. I have to give the man credit. He kept his sanity while traveling with a young girl. There was one time he lost it, but I was fully to blame. The day we were flying home from Paris, he went on a short side trip to a military cemetery. I stayed behind and relaxed with the other people on the tour. By the time he got back, he was a mess. Apparently, he visited some graves of men that he served with during World War II and it affected him very deeply. Being the pre-teen I was, I ignored his request for me to stay with him. I have NEVER heard him yell at me the way he did that day. I deserved it. I wish I could do that day over again, or at least apologize. I am hoping he is looking down and already knows.

Looking back, you could say my grandfather was a self-made man. He came from a low-income family and attended a private school exclusively for children from single-parent homes. He was drafted into the Army in February 1941 (retired in 1964 as a Lt. Colonel). According to my mother, he never earned a degree, but took classes at The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Education was important to him, no matter where he got it (he even read the encyclopedia for the heck of it). He was very well read and knew something about everything. As a teenager, I would try to stump him with a question, but I never could. You could say his biggest lessons he learned from life.

My grandfather coined the phrase "Just do it" long before Nike did. He was not one to procrastinate or complain.

I would like to think that it was my grandfather's attitude that got my mother through a very difficult time in her life.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996. I remember very vividly when she told me. It was almost as if I was talking to my grandfather. She told me that she was diagnosed, what her options were, what she was going to do and when. Everything was to the point; there was no room for self-pity. I am sure she was scared, but you would have never known. I remember the first time I saw her after her mastectomy. She looked so vulnerable - not an image I had seen before - ever. Now, almost 10 years later, I don't even remember she had cancer. Sure, there are things she can't do as easily anymore (she used to be 'Wonder Woman' around the house), but she is also 10 years older.

And now all those years later in a letter from my grandfather's driver during World War II we were to discover that my grandfather would teach us more than just surviving against the odds.

He would in his own simple way teach us the biggest lesson of all - the kind of man he REALLY was.

According to the article, on April 11, 1945, my grandfather, his driver, and their caravan of vehicles were on their way to deliver orders to the Allies ever-advancing front lines. While on the journey, they came across the notorious concentration camp at Buchenwald.

At first, it looked deserted. The main gates were chained shut, with no Nazi guards to be found. But, upon closer inspection, they realized there were survivors still inside...left to die. My grandfather instructed this man to crash through the gate with his jeep. A man approached them, to say thank you, only to collapse and pass away right before their eyes. After spending some time there, my grandfather stated that they must be on their way. Both men never discussed what they saw that day.

Not only did my grandfather never discuss it with his driver, he never discussed it with his family (at least with his children; we don't know if my grandmother knew, since she had already passed away by the time my mother received the article). My grandfather helped liberate a major concentration camp...and no one knew.

I had been holding the hand of a hero since the age of six, and did not know it.

Hindsight is always 20-20, especially when you are an adult looking back on your childhood. I wish I had realized how great my grandfather was when he was alive, or at the very least, had a full appreciation for what he did for me and for others.

He was simply the greatest man I have ever known.

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