Tacos and transmissions. Dirty brown particle-laden air trapped in the soup bowl of San Bernardino. A rose-colored angular building jutting out at the corner of Sagebush and Willow projected an image of false cheer. Just like the town, the rehab hospital had an aura of gloom. Surly nurses, their numbers tempered by the occasional young aide with a genuine smile, mumbled terse responses to our questions, directing us to a barren room in the farthest corner of the structure.
The odor tipped me off before I entered. A sickly, sweet freshener impotently attempted to liven the stale air. The old man was on his side in the soiled hospital bed, semi-fetal position, with one khaki covered leg hanging to the floor. Anxiously circling the bed to get a view of his face, I saw a stubbled, sunken visage slightly reminiscent of a death mask. The brownish grey hair was jutting out cowlick mad, demonstrating a lack of washing or combing. The nails were so long they almost curled. I touched the man's shoulder and a gnarled, discolored hand grabbed my wrist. "I haven't felt this bad since the Bulge," the voice rasped. The Battle of the Bulge, 60 years prior, but his reference point for death.
I had traveled 3,000 miles to rescue my dad, Arthur "Dutch" Schultz, the war hero. World War II, the defining point of his life, had brought him recognition and praise. It had also haunted him, contributing to postwar tragedy and loss.
My mission was not strange to me; in some ways I had been rescuing the old paratrooper since my postwar birth, 10 months after dad had returned from the European Theater. My lifetime obligation had been to ensure dad's emotional salvation. This final foray focused also on physical release. Get dad out of the rehab center and back home so he could die surrounded by his medals and his dog.
He had been left, 60 miles from home, at the facility while his third wife, a retired TWA stewardess, went to a fundraising gala in Chicago. I was a continent away and getting more panicked, making multiple phone calls to the nursing station to control dad's care. Dad was getting increasingly anxious, his once booming voice weakening and quavering as he kept asking me to take him home. Orders were clear. My master sergeant had directed me to get him "out of this place."
Dad had taken me along on his journey and now at the end of the road, I was trying to make sense of my feelings. A mixture of pride, pity and some anger roiled inside me, like pea soup just ready to boil. Tamping down my emotions, I projected steely resolve.
My father's wife entered the room, just returned from her vacation. She was a "femme fatale" in a fifties sort of way. With platinum hair, fire-engine-red acrylic nails and lifted face, she appeared decades younger than the emaciated figure in the bed. Instead, mere sixteen years separated them. Dad's long bony finger pointed accusingly towards her as he barked, "It's your fault!" The relationship between the two of them which had begun 30 some years earlier had become bitter and contentious recently. They had originally moved in together in late 1973, a few short weeks after my sister Rosemary's death, and married two years later, seemingly a good match. Dad, in his early fifties then, was vigorous, handsome, and had been sober for almost a decade. He was enjoying significant success in the drug and alcohol addiction field, the educational and career path he had followed after climbing out of his own alcoholic morass.
Glamorous was how their life seemed to be in the eighties. Travelers both, they took advantage of her stewardess job and all its perks with European visits where they bought designer clothes and expensive cashmere. When attention in the nineties turned to the World II veterans who were belatedly dubbed as the Greatest Generation, dad's wife basked in the glow of being the spouse of the war hero, enjoying the company of such notables as Stephen Ambrose and Steven Spielberg. However, as his emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease worsened in the late nineties, so did their relationship. Arguments and ultimatums ensued, and he became increasingly isolated from various family members and close friends. As he weakened physically and emotionally, my sense of responsibility for him grew.
I had a sense that my trip west to save dad in October 2005 would be my last. I was accompanied by my close friend Ilene, and it was she who convinced his reluctant wife that he would get better care at an acute care hospital closer to home. Two strapping young drivers coddled my 110 lb. skeletal father and strapped him tightly onto the gurney. He started telling war stories, with especially vivid descriptions of the D-day jump, before being packed into the ambulance.
Waving to us for most of the 60-mile trip, he seemed relieved at his temporary escape. Once in the comfortable hometown hospital, with his own doctor, he seemed to rally a bit, ruddy color slowly suffusing his gray cheeks. After he was settled for a few days, I left to return back East. The farewell was wrenching with his murmuring "my baby girl, my baby girl" over and over, while ordering me out of his room so I didn't see the old guy cry.
Two weeks later he was dead. I had succeeded in carrying out his last orders. Immobile at home only two days, with his dog and mementoes of his war glory--medals, citations, miniature parachutes--surrounding him, dad finally joined the war dead he had always mourned. His salvation at the Bulge was providential, but, for all his bravado and success, dad had returned home from the war a shattered man. Alive, but broken.
Dad and our family lost, even though America won the war.
Visit Carol's blog Legacy of War to read more about the impact of war on the children of combat veterans.