August, 2017

July 18th, 1960. It was my mother's 37th birthday. We lived in the Bronx, New York. A made for TV documentary called "Remember Us" aired, featuring interviews with Holocaust survivors and archival footage from the concentration camps, much of which had been shown at the Nuremburg war crimes trials. It told, vividly and graphically, the story of The Final Solution, and the Nazi genocide which had swept Europe, relatively recently. This was, understand, a mere 15 years after the Second World War ended. It was also just about 4 months before my 9th birthday.

"Remember Us" was on TV and Mom was watching it. I remember the title screen featured grainy film of inmates at a concentration camp peering out from behind barbed wire, showing the numbers tattooed on their forearms. It was disturbing, and I paid sporadic attention, as it seemed to be mostly a lot of older people talking in accented English or in foreign languages, with subtitles. Not kids' fare.

I saw tears rolling down my mother's cheeks. I came near, sat quietly and looked more closely at the screen. The stories and images, as they began to dawn on me, were horrifying-- all but incomprehensible to my young mind. She patiently explained to me that, no, this wasn't fiction-- not a made-up movie story like the westerns and science fiction thrillers I so delighted in. I recall trembling in front of the television screen, feeling queasy, trying to understand how people could possibly be that cruel.

Mom had been a World War 2 Army nurse. She tended to hundreds of damaged, battered, shell-shocked and horribly torn up young GIs freshly returned from battle. My own father had been an Airborne Ranger, a veteran of the Battle Of The Bulge, the bloodiest single engagement for American forces in all of WWll. Over 19,000 Americans were killed there. Pop was among the nearly 63,000 who were wounded. A burst of machine gun fire opened him up from shin to navel, and he spent 17 months in military hospitals undergoing surgeries and convalescing.

That's where my parents met-- an Army Hospital. Mom gave Pop the first shampoo he'd had since being evacuated from the frozen Ardennes Forest, and he fell in love with her. I knew he'd been a soldier, and I thought that was pretty "cool", in that way that kids look up to their dads, but I had no idea about the horrors he'd seen until many years later. He didn't speak much about his wartime experiences. It was only 25 years or so down the road that I was able to pry some details out of him. I almost wish I hadn't...

He earned two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star for his wounds, his bravery, selflessness and gallantry in action. He was a reform school, kid, raised in foster homers. He'd been a welterweight boxer, a brawler, a tough little son of a bitch, and somehow made it through mind-bendingly savage action that saw his unit take close to 70% casualties in battle. He spent his wartime service jumping out of airplanes into waist-high snow in sub-zero weather, FIGHTING NAZIS. Not pimply, skinhead club kids, or online, whitebread wannabes-- but honest-to-God Storm Troopers.

He walked with a permanently stiff left leg and a pronounced limp all the years that I knew him, a result of that awful fight in the Belgian forest. Mom used to tell me stories about some of the young guys she took care of, and how terribly sad it was to see so many of them succumb to secondary infections-- not the awful wounds themselves-- because Penicillin was simply not yet widely available in hospitals. She wept at the memory of those poor young men whose lives had been snatched from them by the wretched fortunes of war.

My parents never "spoke down" to us. We were never subjected to baby talk or cutesy language. They always addressed us as intelligent, small people, capable of grasping facts and weighing information and were very direct and informative with us. And so it happened on that July evening that I was introduced to a bit of history about the Second World War, my parents' roles in it-- and the existence of sheer, incomprehensible evil in the world.

A bit too much for an 8 year old to process? Probably. But I felt suddenly like I'd been let in on a major secret. The world was a much different place now that I had this knowledge, this awful information. We lived in a New York apartment building which was a cultural melting pot of Jewish, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, German and Romany folks-- as well as a lot of Irish, Italian, Japanese, Greek and Spanish families. Overnight, all my little pals and their relatives seemed to be... simply magical, because they'd escaped that horror, somehow. Their families, too, had made it past the Nazis alive! We were all so lucky just to be there.

My parents were brave, heroic people who had vital and active, first-person parts in the American war effort. They'd participated in horrible, fierce battles against our enemies and overseen the recovery of those who gave their blood, sweat and tears to physically face down the greatest evil modern man has known. Mom has been dead for 24 years; Pop died 12 years ago. It hasn't been all that long since the initial wave of Nazis spread their cancerous miasma of hate and deadly notions of supremacy across a continent and tried to gain a foothold on the world at large.

This past weekend a bunch of neo-Nazis in polo shirts, carrying Pier One patio accessories took to the streets in Charlottesville, intent on whipping up a fresh frenzy of hatred and division, trying to assert that they are somehow better than and more deserving of life and liberty than all others. They murdered one young woman, and hurt scores of other people. I felt the same queasy sensation I experienced watching "Remember Us" in 1960.

It's 57 years since then, but something tells me that if my parents had been alive to see this, and been on hand, Mom would be scurrying about, field dressing people's wounds and Pop would most likely be punching the living shit out of some self-styled Aryan Superman as he waded into the crowd, countering the "alt-right" assholes with a flurry of his own left hooks , straight jabs and wicked uppercuts. He had no patience for creeps, and never, ever backed away from a fight.

We must never forget who we are, and where we came from. We must honor the service, sacrifice and courage of those whose bravery made it possible for us to live free and to carry on the struggle for decency and humanity-- even when our President ignores it and lends tacit approval to the cretins and monsters who would take us backward toward chaos and insanity. ESPECIALLY then. Resist. Stand up and sound off.

Corporal Wayne Hyde: I Company, 513th Parachute
Infantry Regiment, 17th Airborne Division, 1944

Wayne Hyde, freshly shampooed by his Army nurse, Marilyn Freyer, Shick
General Hospital, Clinton, Iowa, 1945. First photo of my parents together.

Corporal Hyde convalesces, 1945.

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