Moravia, Iowa is a small farm town. It was even smaller back in 1920, but it grew by one with arrival of a baby boy named Otis. I imagine he was a happy boy, as most babies are, perhaps even more so because he was unencumbered by the knowledge that his dear mother would be dead in a few years and that his father would give him away when that matter occurred. But even that was relatively common in a small farm town at that time, so I like to imagine Otis as a happy school boy, too.
Now when Otis was a first grader a baby girl named Florence was born in Jand, Hungary. I am sure that she was a happy baby, too. My knowledge of Hungary is limited to a passing familiarity with goulash, but I think it is safe to assume that little Florence was likely born into a farm community, too.
And so although seven years and six thousand miles separated them, Otis and Florence got about the business of growing up. Otis worked his grandparents’ farm, hacking his way through the Depression with a single toy (a wagon) and no shoes (his were given to the preacher’s son). I’m not really sure what Florence was up to but I know that she developed a talent for hair styling.
But Florence made a huge mistake. For some foolish reason she chose to be born Jewish, and a basilisk named Adolf didn’t like that. He lived high in the mountains in a home named the Eagle’s Nest, where he decided that foolish children like Florence and their families should not be allowed to live. So Adolf sent his evil minions to wipe out the vile threat that was Florence the fourteen-year old hairdresser.
She was sent to the labor camps, as they were then known. I can only imagine what that must have been like.
Mama, where are we going?
They are relocating us to a safe place, Florence. We will be fine.
I really don’t know, I can only guess. Regardless, Florence and her family were yanked from their home, loaded onto a train, and driven away.
In Moravia, Iowa, Otis was yanked from his home, too. His father once gave him to his grandparents, and now his President was giving him to a man named Patton. He would replace Otis’s first name with “corporal,” give him a rifle and an ill-fitting helmet. The skinny corporal with his overbite and his Clark Gable moustache was tossed onto a ship and sent to Germany. He was twenty-three years old. His wife, Mable, and his baby boy may have waved goodbye. Maybe it was too hard.
The corporal found himself the squad leader of a half-track, which is a transvestite of a killing machine: half truck, half tank. On the back of the half-track was a gun big enough to shoot Adolf’s airplanes from the sky. Adolf didn’t care. He sat in his Eagle’s Nest and devised plans to push more human flesh through the meat grinder.
While the corporal moved his big gun from position to position at the request of his new father Patton, Florence was moved from camp to camp. She watched her mother and grandmother walk to the ovens. She witnessed and suffered inconceivable cruelty and indignities. But she survived through the magic of hair styling. As I understand the story the camp commandant valued Florence’s beauty tips more than Adolf wished her dead for daring to be born Jewish.
While Florence was surviving through her wits and beauty tips, Patton and the corporal formerly known as Otis were cutting their way across Europe. The happy boy from Moravia was nowhere to be seen. He stabbed to death two of Adolf’s officers with a pitchfork. He set up a gun position in a family’s strawberry patch, secretly taking pleasure in the thought that they may starve through the winter.
Eventually the corporal and his brothers in arms found themselves at the gates of a strange place named Mauthausen. They opened the gates and stepped into the belly of the beast. Emaciated bodies lay about like windblown newspapers. Skeletons in filthy striped pajamas stared from their deep eye sockets. The chimney spewed a cloying smoke so sweet as to turn the corporal’s stomach. Florence was here, too. Did she meet the corporal? Maybe. Perhaps he gave her his K-rations, or draped his olive-green coat around her shoulders. History has eaten those details; besides, this scene played out all over the Hell Adolf created. It may not be true of Florence and the corporal, but it is true nonetheless.
The corporal returned to Iowa after this unspeakable horror, and he didn’t speak. Well, not often and rarely of Mauthausen. He was Otis again, but he wasn’t. He was killed during the war, but it would take his body another forty years to figure this out.
Florence moved to the newly formed state of Israel, where she married and had a baby named Chaim. But they didn’t live happily ever after, either. Florence’s husband was a philanderer, so she packed up little Chaim and moved to America. Chaim changed his name to Eugene, and finally Gene. He adopted his mother’s maiden name, Klein, but later opted for the stage name Simmons. Consciously or not he co-opted the symbols of the Axis powers who terrorized his mother: The kabuki makeup of Tojo’s culture, and the SS lightning bolts of Adolph the Basilisk. He reinvented himself as the fire-breathing God of Thunder, armored, impervious to harm.
Around the time that the newly-minted Gene Simmons was creating himself, Otis’s first grandson was born. He would spend a good chunk of his childhood idolizing the flat-topped and hollowed out Otis on one hand and the larger than life Gene Simmons on the other. And as an adult that boy spent a couple of hours in a restaurant with his notebook, connecting the dots in a feeble attempt to show you just how small the world really is.
The following photos were taken by Corporal Otis Stafford at Mauthausen and other European sites during the War:
Categories: featured, Featured Content, Memoir, Music
Just looked through those photos. You have quite a treasure. Thank you for sharing
That. Is. Extraordinary.
That’s possibly the best account of a life I’ve ever read. I was gripped right to the end. Otis and Florence meeting and getting married was the ending I anticipated, but the revelation about Chaim becoming Gene Simmons blew that silly notion out of the water. Then there was you. The connections we have, can at times, be remarkable. You’ve definitely shown that.
Well thanks very much. I greatly appreciate the kind words.
Coolest. Story. Ever.
High praise. Thanks very much.
Such a fantastic story! You had me hanging on every word. Such wonderful writing.
Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m honored that you took the time to give it a read.
You’ve outdone yourself. You hit it out of the park on a regular basis, you have me laughing and crying in the same post on a regular basis, but this? I don’t know, I cannot seem to find the right combination of letters to describe this. Stunned? Stunning is about as close as I can get right now, and this piece of writing is all of that and so much more.
Just…..I don’t know. Thank you.
I couldn’t ask for more than that. Thank you.
I was wondering what the connection would be. It wasn’t one of marriage and a happy ending, but I did not see this story unfolding in the exact way you wrote it – which is such a pleasant surprise indeed.
Neither of my grandfathers served in either world war as they were young for the first and old/family encumbered for the second. They worked the mills and built the seemingly never ending machines that were the steel compatriots to the flesh and blood that relied upon them to produce the carnage that the Pattons of the world needed to illuminate their successes and failures both.
My father served in Korea (as a gunner protecting the airfield on Okinawa) and did not see personal battle, just the carnage of many a bomber – bullet ridden and either crashing into the ocean a few breaths away from safety, or onto the tarmac, where other flesh and blood and friends and brothers in arms had to quickly bulldoze the remains of the crafts that had no landing gear left, off the runway, to make room for the others trying to get back to their treasured current home as their fuel was running out. He came close enough to personal battle for me, being that his survival ensured my own. Selfish I know – but I like, love and admire the guy.
He can talk about it, and has on many occasions when gently prodded. He talks of a bond that is not explainable unless experienced. He talks of being forgotten by a whole country when returning back to his “home”. Sometimes he can even talk of others who’s flesh made it back, but that was all.
What Otis saw at the end of being part of the Generals ultimate stratego game and Florence experienced, being thrust into what must have seemed a parallel universe, was the very maw of insanity. Yet they weren’t fully permitted to go insane, or had the strength not to. One gave us Gene, the other you. A simply fascinating combination of two interconnected people that only this crazy world could come up with.
These experiences changed Otis’s and Florence’s very core, and I thank you for writing this, as this post will certainly be a treasured and a permanent part of mine.
First of all, thanks for sharing your father’s story. By now I’m sure it’s no surprise to hear that stories about people really get me going. It’s both sad and interesting how common veterans’ emotional experiences seem to be regardless of time, duty, or theater.
As for this particular piece I couldn’t be more pleased that you enjoyed it. Sometimes when the ball comes off of the bat you know you’ve hit the sweet spot, and that’s how I felt about this one. It’s been a bit of a bumpy week emotionally — I can’t seem to get attract the interest in it that I’d like, but the feedback I’ve gotten has been very satisfying.
I read this post straight after receiving the email subscription notification about it, and then had to re-read it a couple more times. I wish I had commented there and then, but I just couldn’t express myself at the time. And now I’ve read it again and still I struggle. Your story is incredible and unfolds perfectly to a totally unexpected ending. To have experienced that horror from both angles must have been terrible and you’ve brought that across really well without being too graphic. The strangest thing about it all is the whole KISS connection and the iconic imagery you mention. Amazing.
I very my appreciate that, my UK twin.
Wonderful post. The photographs are a treasure. I like yourself, love the one with the former prisoner smiling.
I keep coming back to this in my wandering thoughts during the day, and I go many places with it. I think about what would it feel like if I discovered that my grandfather had been part of a group that found Bruce Springsteen’s mother living in hell and rescued her. I would do something really lame, like write him a sloppy sentimental letter. Or I would try to tell the story to my friends and it would have no impact, I would just be a blathering bore.
And never in a million years could I write it like this.
You sell yourself short, my friend, and you give me much more credit than I deserve.
Thanks for sharing this story. I love reading old accounts of wartime figures. In some ways it seems like lifetimes ago and yet not really. Thanks for this Veteran’s Day story.
My great pleasure. I’m embarassed that I can do so little for people who did so much.