Grandpa grew up poor and scattered between Brooklyn, where he was born in 1925, and New Jersey, where his mother eventually raised him and his eight siblings on her own. She’d divorced her husband, who flip-flopped between dreams and states, eventually rendering them penniless. Grandpa and his siblings had to work in order to help support the family, but his mother always encouraged them to focus on school. She believed that an education was the best way for them to be successful.
In 1944 the GI Bill was signed, making a college education accessible for the first time to the working class and a generation of Americans who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford it. That bill changed my grandpa’s life. He used it to put himself through MIT, graduating and going to work at PPG, where he learned everything he could about making glass. Grandpa left PPG in the seventies to start his own glass company, Rochester Insulated Glass.
And because of that bill and my grandfather’s success, I was exposed to more luxuries and opportunities than most. Nana and Grandpa took us out to nice restaurants whenever we were together. They liked to take us where there wasn’t a children’s menu, which was always a challenge for my picky palate. Nana would lean over to me and say, “You don’t have to finish anything you don’t want.” Still, I was encouraged to try anything. I loved going out with Nana and Grandpa. Their introducing me to fine dining contributed to my interest in the industry for sure, though I’m sure they never imagined that I would end up working in restaurants.
The privileges extended further than nice restaurants though. Grandpa somehow wore down on my father’s pride, convincing my dad to allow him to help pay for our college tuitions. One year, he and Nana paid for my entire year of tuition. The amount of student debt that I didn’t have because of that is monumental, the generosity of my grandparents knew no bounds. Grandpa would be embarrassed for me to say it. He often donated to charities anonymously, or said it was a gift from his company.
And his appreciation for education never faded. He started having us all get together with our cousins for what he called a “College Club” meeting. We talked about college, where we wanted to go and what we wanted to study and why. I was only about thirteen when we had our first College Club meeting and I didn’t quite know what to make of it. I was so privileged that the concept of not going to college had never dawned on me. It had always been engrained in me that I would go, it was only a question of where and for what. As I grew up, I realized that contrary to my childhood, a college education had hardly been a possibility for my grandpa until he was nineteen.
In doing my research for this project, I had the fortunate opportunity to interview a friend of my grandfather’s. He mentioned the GI Bill more than once. “The institutions were so worried, these soldiers coming from war and into college, they thought we would be hooligans and miscreants. On the contrary, we were often the best students. We were so grateful for the opportunity — it was a rarity that it was wasted on us.” His name is Father Leo Hetzler, he met my grandfather in 1943 in Louisiana, when Grandpa was assigned to his original infantry, the 86th. The 86th was an elite infantry, reserved for the brightest soldiers, also called the Blackhawks, who were to be groomed as officers. “When we were training and got a break, we used to drive our superior officers nuts. They would give us fifteen minutes and we would all take out our pocket mystery novels,” he paused to chuckle to himself, “I don’t know what they expected of us, but not that.”
Father Hetzler is a tall man with a kind face; whenever I’ve seen him, he’s been in his clerical clothing. When he speaks he gesticulates, hands meeting with fingers intertwined across his chest when he pauses to chuckle, which is very, very often. He is a retired English Literature professor and is incredibly articulate and insightful. I first met him about fifteen years ago when he appeared at dinner with Grandpa. I was told he’d served with Grandpa in the war and nothing else. Grandpa didn’t speak about the war and Father Hetzler didn’t either. Up until about a month ago, I imagined they did so in private. Of course, I was wrong. When I started asking questions about my grandfather, Father Hetzler didn’t even know what infantry he’d been in overseas or where he’d fought and he was entirely unaware that I was named after someone my grandpa had known during the Allied occupation. “Of course we were talking more, not so much about the war, we were talking about his business and — the glass works and all of that. And I suppose I talked about the college but we certainly didn’t talk about the war, there was just so many other things going on.”
It’s difficult for me to imagine living through what Father Hetzler and my grandpa lived through and never speaking about it. Father Hetzler explained to me that the mentality was that the war was something to get through in order to get on with your life. They wanted to get back home to start careers and families. Then it was all over and they could, so they did. No one was thinking that they were making history, they were just kids trying to survive.
Grandpa had been so private about the war that Nana didn’t even know what infantry he was in off the top of her head. She had to do some digging to look for his discharge papers. “He threw most of his things away,” she explained to me, “he left the army angry.” Turns out that when Grandpa was in Vienna during the occupation, he’d applied to and was accepted into West Point. When they came to collect him, he was out on maneuvers, they couldn’t find him. So they gave away his position in the school and when he got back he took an Honorable Discharge, destroying most of his paperwork and any souvenirs he may have had from the war. The only things my grandpa kept were his discharge papers, some medals, his Kodak Retina and a blue pastry tin full of pictures he’d taken. That’s where I found pictures of who I believe is Thea.
But before I got my hands on all that material, I was doing research on the 86th, going off of a story that Father Hetzler had told at Grandpa’s memorial in 2008. He said that they’d been fighting in the Ardennes and had come under fire by German flame-throwers. He said he and my grandfather had been lying face down, side by side when Grandpa turned to him and said, “And thus begins another monotonous day.”
Once Nana had found the papers and I realized that Grandpa had not fought with the 86th, I asked Father Hetzler about the story. He chuckled, apologized and explained that it was a true story about Grandpa, but one that Grandpa had told him. “I think he – he told me that himself. Now, when I told the story it was as if I was there. But he had that humor all the time, I think it was a good – good insight into his mind. The control that he had, the steadiness. That was very much him.” Father Hetzler had never fought in the Battle of the Bulge, he’d just told the story in the first person to shorten the length of his speech at the memorial.
After some more digging and interrogating of Nana, I found that Grandpa had left the 86th to get his wings as a paratrooper. He never ended up jumping in war, but instead served in the 350th Infantry, light weapons. A light weapons platoon had two thirty-millimeter machine guns and three sixty-millimeter mortars. Every infantry had a light weapon platoon and a three rifle platoon.
There was a period of time when “light weapons” was misremembered as “heavy weapons” in the various memory banks of me and my family, so I ended up learning a bit about those soldiers as well. That little mistake, interestingly enough, may have shed light on a pile of pictures of jeeps that my grandpa had taken.
Father Hetzler explained to me what a heavy weapons platoon was. He told me that every battalion would consist of about 700 soldiers and every battalion had a heavy weapons platoon. That platoon would have jeeps carrying fifty caliber machine guns and eighty millimeter mortars. The jeeps would have either the mortars or the machine guns on them, each with soldiers specializing in the weapons. “There was one episode in, fighting in Germany, when we were going up the side of a valley – so we got strung out – and on the opposite side, the Germans had dug in and were laying an ambush for us. As soon as we got strung out then they opened up powerful firepower. Well, we invented a new kind of technique with our heavy weapons jeeps and fifty caliber machine guns, [the jeep] ran parallel to us up and down between us and it just, just snuffed out the whole enemy line which was strung out half a mile or so. And that was the new, that was the new weapons.”
That would explain the amount of pictures of jeeps that I found in Grandpa’s things, they were vehicles of saving grace. Without them, movement and survival would have been even more limited to say the least.
Father Hetzler will certainly come up further in my story. To learn more about his life and his war experience, take a look at this movie made by a man who walked by him in an airport and said, “You have a very interesting face.” After a brief conversation, the man ended up interviewing Father Hetzler and putting together this short film.
Father Hetzler’s thoughts on the movie: “…the only disagreement we had was this one on humor. I told all sorts of stories about humorous things that had happened and — he cut them all out. He said it would spoil the mood, the very serious mood. And I said ‘No, humor would heighten it.’ That’s what playwrights did, like Shakespeare. The audience just watched the murder of Duncan, Lady MacBeth is covered in blood. And she says, ‘No water will wash this away.’ And then the next scene is the drunken porter at the gate. The audience needs that. The humor is really what got us through.”