I did not know my paternal grandfather very well. That was partly due to geography, and partly due to the fact that he rarely spoke around me.
What I knew about the man I extrapolated from the few clues available to me. He was tall in the sense that all adults are tall to a child, and his thin frame slouched slightly. He wore his gray hair in a flat top so precise you could shoot pool on it. Years of sun, smoke, and drink carved deep creases into the back of his leathery neck, and his eyes remained hidden behind the precursor to what we now call Transitions® lenses. My grandfather was always stepping outside for something, probably quiet, so his slow-transitioning lenses remained in sunglass mode more often than not.
Cigarette, beer, Zippo, belt buckle, and silence. That may not be who my grandfather was, but that was his distilled essence to me as a grade schooler. The fact that we moved far away from my grandparents when I was a young boy probably explains why my mental picture of him remains so incomplete.
There were clues hinting at the man behind the glasses, though. His eccentric flair for interior decoration once led him to post a parody of the Lord’s Prayer on the wall above his piranha tanks: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for I am the meanest son of a bitch in the valley.” His deer rifles hung in the same room, and I knew that they were war relics brought home and re-purposed. He never spoke about the war, but it hung in the air like cigarette smoke.
The deep wrinkles in his skin, the dark glasses, silence, omnipresent Coors can — I don’t know whether I was told that they all were war wounds or I decided that for myself. His false teeth, though, those were bona fide: “Your grandpa caught a bad case of trench mouth in Germany. He teeth were never right after that.”
My grandfather was a war hero, but when I was a kid everybody’s granddad was a war hero. My father told me just enough to remain competitive on the playground: Grandpa was in Germany. He fought the Nazis. He was a gunner on a half-track. He was in the Battle of the Bulge. You remember that Patton movie on TV? Your grandpa was in Patton’s army.
I was given his name, too, though only as a middle name. It was a hopelessly outdated name with a funny sound: Otis. When kids got a hold of it, they mocked me mercilessly; in fact, the occasional adult still does. My move as a child was to brag that Otis was a war hero. As an adult, I pretend to laugh and play along.
That name caused me a lot of pain and trouble as a child, and not just because it was fodder for bullies. The problem was that I had nowhere to run when the other kids teased me. If I said anything to my parents they scolded me: Your grandfather was a war hero. You should be proud of that name. If you knew what he did you wouldn’t be so ungrateful.
Every year or two we’d visit Otis or Otis would visit us, and he’d sit behind his dark glasses and not say much. If the news was on, he might comment on the goddamned hippies ruining America: “If I ever catch one of those goddamned hippies wearing an American flag as a patch, I’ll rip it off the seat of his goddamned pants myself.”
When he talked to me, which wasn’t often, he called me “Jimmer.” Most of what I heard from Otis were words thrown over my head to my father. Some of them were even jokes, and after he delivered their punchlines he let out a laugh made gravelly by years of unfiltered Raleighs. He was intimidating, but he was not humorless.
Over the years more details emerged, either because I was deemed old enough to handle them or because my parents were trying to turn the tide on the whole middle name battle. I remember telling kids that my grandfather was one of the first through the gates at Mauthausen, a Nazi concentration camp located in Austria. Sometimes I phrased this as, “My Grandfather liberated Mauthausen.”
That’s how I saw it, too. A blend of childhood imagination, wishful thinking, ignorance, and scenes from the countless war movies my father watched congealed into an image of Otis in his olive drabs, his deer rifle clutched in his hand and a Raleigh pinched between his lips, kicking in the chain link gate at a summer camp, his gray flat top hidden beneath his helmet and his eyes hidden behind his sunglasses. The Nazi guards charged him, but Otis took them out with a few good whacks from the butt of his rifle. The inmates of Mauthausen were saved!
I didn’t do well with the teasing. During my fourth grade year, I shot out a neighbor’s sliding glass door with my BB gun. Their kids were running around their backyard screaming, “Look out! It’s the Otis tribe! The Otis tribe is going to get us!” while I sat in a tree in my own yard, not an intentional part of their game. I didn’t mean to shoot out the window, but I meant to pull the trigger. I don’t know what I thought would happen.
That marked the apex of the middle name wars. I took a beating for that one, and I was grounded for an entire summer. My father told me he didn’t give a damn whether I changed my name, didn’t give a damn what I did at all. He was ashamed of me, which hurt worse than the beating. I never mentioned my dissatisfaction with my name again.
Somewhere along the way I learned that Otis killed two Nazis with a pitchfork. His platoon was on foot in the German countryside, looking for a place to sleep. They happened upon a barn, inside of which they found two sleeping enemy soldiers. It was less a “horrors of war” story and more a “he had to do what he had to do” story.
It was 1978–33 years after the war’s end–before I heard firsthand anything from Otis regarding the war. My grandparents’ visit that year coincided with NBC’s presentation of the Holocaust miniseries. War television was appointment TV for my father, and appointment television before recording devices meant you sat your ass down and watched real-time, no matter who was visiting. My grandfather sat at the kitchen table in our combination family room/dining room, sipping a Coors and smoking a Raleigh, watching but not watching, quiet as always. On screen, the Nazis shoveled bodies into the camp ovens. From the kitchen table we heard, “The smoke from the chimneys was so sweet it made you sick.”
Throughout my teens, summer vacation added little pieces to my picture of Otis. We brought home a Nazi officer’s pistol and cap one year. Another year my sister and I found in a drawer a hand-tinted photo of a rosy-cheeked soldier. We showed it to our grandfather. “I wondered where that goddamned picture went,” he said.
“Who is it?”
“That’s your great uncle Paul.”
“Have we met him?”
“No. He was killed in the war,” he said. Grandpa placed the photo on the shelf behind his bar. It remained there until he died.
The last time Otis tried to speak to me, I brushed him off. We were in town for my maternal grandfather’s funeral, and I just wanted to be left alone. I regret that moment, but honestly I don’t know what we would have said to each other anyway. I was more like the hippies that he hated than I was like my cousins whom he liked, I think, and I couldn’t make a page of dialog out of the words we’d exchanged over the prior nineteen years.
Nine months later Otis was gone, and I was back at the same mountain cabin, this time with my grieving grandmother. There’s a practical side to processing loss, the “what am I going to do” part of the equation, and that part led my grandmother on a frantic search for any evidence of a life insurance policy. While she rifled through Otis’s desk, she sent me to the bedroom to dig through the closet. I found a briefcase, which seemed like a good place for an insurance policy to be hiding. I popped its latches and lifted its lid. There were no life insurance documents inside. There was no life of any sort inside, only death–piles of corpses, gaping mouths, hollow eye sockets: Mauthausen through my grandfather’s eyes.
I stared at the photos that he took inside that camp, and because I knew him, albeit not very well, they took on a weight that no other depiction of Nazi atrocities ever had. I was seeing exactly what he saw. It was real, and the horror of it rippled across the decades. Otis became someone else: A boy not much older than I was at that very moment, with the sickly sweet smell of the crematorium in his nostrils and the stacks of bodies in his untinted eyes. I couldn’t process the evidence inside the briefcase. I couldn’t imagine how he processed the evidence from his own sensory organs.
My grandmother sent me home with a Nazi flag. He may have taken it from the camp, I don’t know. He was all over the region during the war. Where exactly he seized it doesn’t really matter. I tucked the flag deep inside my duffel bag before heading to the airport. I was afraid of what security might think if they checked my bags.
What does one do with a Nazi flag? Being given such a thing is like being handed a burden. My grandmother may as well have handed me a necklace made of Viet Cong ears. When I returned home, I tucked the flag beneath a stack of t-shirts in a dresser drawer.
Late one night, Otis shook me awake. “What time is it?” I asked.
“Where’s that goddamned flag?” he replied. I climbed out of bed, walked him to the dresser, lifted the t-shirts, and showed him where his Nazi flag was hidden. “No, Jimmer. That’s no good. Nobody will ever know,” he said.
I am not a fool. I knew then that no matter how real it seemed, this was just a dream. I know now that my subconscious was trying to make sense of the heavy freight that I brought home from his funeral.
Over the next 30 years, that Nazi flag has moved from drawer to drawer, unseen by anyone. I don’t recall even showing it to my own children, though they know it exists. But last week, young men who weren’t even born when my grandfather died joined old men who should know better in Charlottesville, Virginia. Their goal was to wave Nazi flags just like mine while they purported to be good Americans. My grandfather’s ghost visited me again, reminding me that hidden away in a drawer, nobody will ever know.
I won’t pretend that I know for certain how he would have felt about Charlottesville. At this point it should be clear to you that my memory of my grandfather is a crazy quilt of artifice and anecdote. I know that he didn’t like hippies, though, and he likely would have labeled the counter protestors as goddamned hippies.
And yet, I can’t imagine that with the sweet smell of burning flesh lingering in his nostrils and images of bodies piled like leaves burned into his mind’s eye that he would have defended the Neo-Nazis with their flags, their stiff arm salutes, and their “Jews will not replace us” chants. He probably would have sat at the kitchen table with a Coors and a Raleigh, an owl in the eaves while the world burned. When there was a lull in the around the clock news coverage, he would have quietly delivered a firsthand account of the real Nazis and their real atrocities, an account so sparse and cold that it would stick in my gut like the tines of a pitchfork.
Maybe in a way, mine is the last generation to hold the tether to this particular atrocity. For us they were playground stories light on details and heavy on heroes, but those heroes were living, breathing human beings. They were our family members, and we loved them even if we didn’t really know them. We saw the wounds that the Nazis inflicted, even when the wounds were invisible. We might be the last generation that doesn’t have to reach even a little bit to understand that one can’t be both a Nazi and an American, a Nazi and a good person.
I don’t know for certain what my grandfather would say about Charlottesville, but he kept personal record of the Nazi atrocities he witnessed. It seems safe to assume that he didn’t want them forgotten. My grandfather paid for the Nazis’ sins with his own peace of mind and his brother’s blood. I’m sentimental enough to believe that he fought them in Europe so that we wouldn’t have to fight them in America.
My middle name is Otis, a hero’s name. It’s a flag that I wave proudly.