Our fathers' stories

At least in principle, Steven Spielberg was never one of my favorite directors. There was no denying that his movies were artfully made and often very entertaining, but they were also, it seemed to me, manipulative and soulless--and never more so than when he tackled difficult material, as in The Color Purple.

My view of his work changed, though, with Schindler's List, his 1993 masterpiece about the Holocaust. Here was a movie that packed an emotional wallop without relying on sentimentality or technological tricks. I became a convert.

When Saving Private Ryan opened last year, though, I wasn't sure I wanted to see it. From the reviews, I learned the outline of the story, which had several elements in common with what little I knew of my father's World War II experience. But most of the reviews also noted that the extreme violence of the opening scene at Normandy was very upsetting.

So when I finally went to see Saving Private Ryan this past February, I expected to be moved by it. I expected to shed a few tears, and I did, unbegrudgingly. What I didn't expect was that the movie would flood my mind with memories of my father and questions of who he really was and how the war had shaped him.

Many of us who are members of the Baby Boom generation seem to share a sense of our fathers as enigmas. The most common response I've heard when I ask friends about their fathers' service in World War II is, "I don't know. He never talked about it."

Of course, because we Baby Boomers are also known as the "Me Generation," some observers have suggested that we're just whining about this, playing a variation on that old line, "My parents didn't pay enough attention to me." After all, our fathers fought and won a war, and then they came home and got married and raised families. Enough said.

In our household, there were only small bits of evidence of my father's participation in the war, which was never discussed. There was the framed photograph of him in his uniform that stood on my mother's dresser. There was the fact that he didn't eat chicken, as a result of an encounter with spoiled rations. And there was his inability to stay in the room when Liesel Wellman, a friend and neighbor who was a German war bride, talked of her experiences as a prisoner in her own country.

The bare bones of my father's story--and I've only recently learned even this much--are these. Robert L. Stamp enlisted in the U.S. Army on September 19, 1941, and signed his separation papers on September 5, 1945. He served as a sergeant, in charge of a heavy machine-gun platoon consisting of thirty-five enlisted men, in the European Theater of Operations. As a member of the Fifth Infantry Division, he was involved in some of the fiercest fighting of the war, including the taking of bridges all the way to the Rhine.

My uncle Ben, who had also served in the war, once told me that my father had wanted very much to be a "country doctor" but that he believed he was too old for medical school after he mustered out of the army. He also said that my father, as true-blue a patriot as any veteran, believed the war had, at least in that respect, diminished his life.

A couple of years ago at Christmas time, my mother asked my brother and me to sort through two boxes of my father's effects. The boxes probably hadn't been touched since my parents moved into the house in 1951, the year I was born. Inside, still in their black leather boxes, were medals--the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, and the Purple Heart--and ribbons, along with such spoils of war as a collection of meerschaum pipes. Most importantly, inside were documents, letters, papers, and postcards that I've now been savoring, getting to know something about my father twenty years after his death and fifty years after these pieces were written.

In a letter to his mother, he gently poked fun at her for mixing up the numbers of the various units in which four of her five sons were serving. From England he wrote, "I'm in the Fifth Infantry Division. Rather proud of it, don't you know." As I read the note, I had to smile at the thought of my Kentucky-by-way-of-Illinois father having picked up such a British way of expressing himself while he was stationed in England. I've smiled--and laughed, and even cried--many times since at the bountiful evidence of a quick wit that seems to have been driven out of him by 1945.

Still, my greatest insight into my father's experience of the war came as he lay dying of metastatic cancer in Pittsburgh's Allegheny General Hospital. He was only intermittently lucid in the last few weeks; most of the time he was lost in drug- and fever-induced hallucinations. Some of them were truly frightening to behold, as they took over his emaciated frame and made him sit bolt upright in bed, arms flailing. The most horrific of all--and one eerily echoed in a scene near the end of Saving Private Ryan--left him screaming "Clear the bridge!" just as he had to his buddies three decades earlier when he spotted a booby trap.

In one of those touches of irony that life sometimes bestows, my father died on the Fourth of July, 1978. Instead of going home for the holiday to take part in the bedside vigil, I'd accepted an invitation from a high-school friend and his wife to spend the weekend with them in New York City. It was there I got the news that Dad had died, but instead of grieving and accepting the solace offered by my friends, I threw a tantrum. Who was he to go and die on me before we could ever have a relationship? There were things about him I needed to know, and things I needed for him to know about me.

I've gotten over the anger, although I know I'll always feel a sadness for the missed opportunity of forging a bond with him as an adult. And every time I look at his photo, I'll still wonder, just who was that dashing young man with the gentle eyes and shy smile?


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