Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

My Atlas

Kimberly Parrott


My daddy only drank one beer a year. We children, his spectators, spent each night of our summer "car" vacation wondering if this would be the night. If it was, Daddy would smirk, Mama would shake her head, and Daddy would slip to a liquor store. After we had all smelled it and grimaced, he would settle back in his chair and sip that can like a fine wine. He always seemed to float far away from us as he drank. I know now that wasn't the beer alone.

My grandpa would have disowned his beer-drinking son. He raised his boy in the North Georgia Mountains where clear corn liquor and hard cider were the sustenance of real men. My daddy and his one sissy beer would have been laughed out of the county. Maybe that's why he drank it hundreds of miles away from Georgia. And I know he didn't drink it to be a real man.

I was eleven when Daddy hinted at the truth behind his lone beer; it was attached to a story of epic proportion. I was to find out years later that he had told none of my four older siblings. He probably never would have told me if that one night hadn't been so quiet, and my question hadn't been so strange.

It was in the year 1976, the nation's bicentennial, but I, for one, was not celebratory. Instead, I was eleven years old and fuming over my sister's latest exploit. My sister Tammy was sway-hipped, wild, and seventeen. From my viewpoint, she was also a she-devil. She had once again run off with some wild boy, once again come in very late, and once again was furious with me for not lying well enough to cover her. We had an argument—a heated argument that had ended as they usually did—with her screeching something to the effect of "You just wait until you're a teenager!"

Normally, I would have shrugged off her comment—I always took her words as pure piddle, but on that occasion, I did not. I had come home from school earlier that day with unsettling news. According to my fifth grade science teacher and a geneticist by the name of Mendel, I was not in entirely in charge of my future. A portion of my life was doomed to be under the jurisdiction of my genetic code. With my hormonal sister frothing in front of me, I began to suspect our genetic code had some serious kinks.

Late that night as I lay in bed, my unsettling day led to an unsettled rest. In my mind, I began to combine the strangeness of my sister with the cousin-joining marriages of my Southern ancestors. Phantasmagorically, I recreated my DNA strand, and it became so inbred and convoluted, it could see its own taillights.

I awoke from sleep, sweat-drenched and worried. It suddenly occurred to me that if it was DNA that warped my sister, it could happen to me, too. Perhaps I was just a dormant, preadolescent version of Tammy. I wasn't usually a hysterical child, but the thought of becoming my sister put me into a self-induced panic. There would be no more sleep for me that night until I found out if teen wildness truly was generational in my family. I needed to know some family history—fast.

Simply opening my bedroom door let me know my mother was sleeping—she snored like a wildebeest. But sometimes at night, my father would stay up late when Zane Grey or Louis L'Amour had him particularly entranced. Luckily, this was one of those nights, and I caught him alone. His pipe scent, Prince Albert seasoned with wrinkle-skinned apple slices, drifted toward me as I came into our dimly lit living room. I sat in the naugahyde recliner adjacent to and matching his own and waited to be noticed.

"What are you doing up, Punkin?" he asked.

"Oh nothing, I was just thinking about some things," I said.

"Things like…," he prodded.

It came out in a flood.

"Things like teenagers. I was wondering if Tammy acts like you or Mama did when you were young. How were you when you were that age? I mean, Daddy, like—what was the worst thing you remember doin' when you were a teenager?"

Daddy took three puffs on his pipe before he responded with, "We didn't always have enough food growing up so I would steal apples and corn sometimes when we were lean."

I waited for the continuing story, but it did not come. My daddy, it seemed, had been genetically fine as a teenager. Relieved for at least the paternal influence upon my future, I pushed out of the recliner, told my father goodnight, then stepped to the doorway. It was then my father said softly, "The worst thing I ever did, I did as an adult."

Assured of his kind nature, I responded with, "What, Daddy, did you run a stop sign or something?"

"No ... I killed someone."

I searched my mind frantically for a way to make sense of what he had just said. I found it. My father had been to war.

"Oh Daddy," I said, "you were in World War II. I know they probably made you kill Japanese and Germans."

Again, three puffs on his pipe then a pause before he said, "The man I killed did not fight for the Japs or the Germans."

My hands and body sought the naugahyde I'd just abandoned, this time to support the room which had lost its floor. My heart was racing, and my eyes kept darting to his stark profile and to the hand that smoothed the already slicked back hair on his head. After a long pause, seconds like hours, he began again at a slow, steady cadence, like a march to a place he didn't want to go.

"It was during my stint in the army. I entered the war at the end. I was older than most soldiers, and I didn't think I would receive a draft, but it came in '44. By the time my training was done, the war was all but over. My job was to help straighten out parts of Germany after the war. We were first sent to one of the concentration camps. We were to set up tents a few miles away and work to clear up roads, then work our way into the camp. We had all heard rumors about these camps, were a bit uptight about them. I guess the sergeants were, too, because they harped on us hard about all the sanitation hazards (like we weren't walking sanitation hazards) and about how we were to treat the prisoners. They told us many of these mobs had not eaten for a long time and how we were not to start anything by sharing our ration bars and canteens. They told us to remove the dead bodies and route the living out of the camps so that they could get away from the vermin and disease. We were to send the able ones walking and truck the rest. By the time the sergeants finished, we thought we knew more than plenty about those camps. The days ahead would prove us wrong."

As he paused to inhale on his pipe again, curiosity drew me out of my shock. I had read Anne Frank and seen the Holocaust miniseries; I was amazed to know my daddy from the mountains had even gone to Germany, much less seen a part of this tragedy. I asked him in a whisper, "Daddy, was it like on TV, with gas chambers, Nazis, and trenches of bodies?"

"I didn't actually place eyes on those, but there was enough death and dying in that camp to last a century. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes."

He shook his head as if to shake out those thoughts before continuing. "Anyhow, our time there began easily enough when we cleared the first road and entered the camp. The healthiest prisoners were scattered near the gates as we went in. Being short, I always fell behind in marches, and as I pulled up in the rear of the line, I saw an old man to my right, wearing his star and a smile of welcome. His hands were motioning for food and water. I could tell he needed it more than me, and we had no mob to swarm around us, so I gave him my extra canteen and a ration bar—kind of a tough beef jerky. He was the first of many that day to say 'danke,' the German word for thanks."

Another wordless pause followed, a pause that felt tighter and heavier somehow. A haze of pipe smoke pressed upon us.

Then he went on. "As we stepped toward the buildings, the wind changed and a gray fog of flakes began to float around us. They were blowing all around but seemed to come mainly from an incinerator tower of some sort. Looking at the fenced piles of bodies outside the incinerator, we soon figured out our strange snow was human ash; it made our faces twitch and our hands shake.

I was assigned to clear the women's barracks, again because I was smaller and couldn't lift as much weight (as though any of these prisoners had weight). We went into long, thin barracks stacked with bunks, at least five high on each side. We soon picked up on a pattern. The able prisoners had relinquished their lower bunks so that the weakest prisoners would not have to climb up and down. We knew this because the lower bunks held corpses while, on the upper bunks, there were bony hands and feet moving and the occasional dark eye peering over the sides. My buddies and I tied rags around our faces to cover the smells and began moving bodies.

Not knowing what else to do with them, we carried them to the already overflowing piles near the incinerator. Sometimes, I hate to say, we were forced to sling the bodies high, like sacks; some of them did not stay intact. It felt wrong, but we needed to be able to climb up and carry out the living. Stepping on and crushing the corpses as they lay on bunks would have been just as wrong.

Eventually, on the third layer of bunks, we found some living prisoners. It was unreal to see how a person could be a skeleton and still move and speak. The pitiful part, though, was when women, seeing us, would pull together the rags they wore, modest-like, and some would waste blood with blushes."

Irony caused a grim grin to pass across his face before he continued.

"They whispered, rasped, even mouthed their thanks as we carried them out of the camp to fresh air and as many blankets as could be found. Some asked urgent questions, ones to which we knew no answers. Others fought and stumbled to the men's barracks.

Evening eventually came (though the ashes made it hard to notice), and we had to leave in order to have strength to work the next day. We marched out with heavy feet and heavy souls. Barely a word was spoken as we left the camp. I was about to walk out through the gates, thinking I was certainly a different soldier than I was that morning, when I saw something that made me freeze scared. The smiling old man, the one still clutching my canteen, was dead, grossly dead. However he had died, it had made his eyes bulge and his tongue protrude like a big black slug. I just stared, not believing.

All of a sudden, from behind with no warning, my sergeant barked in my ear, 'Private, is that your canteen?'

I said, 'Yes, sir.'

Right then, he exploded, 'YOU IDIOT! You killed that man, private. Your orders were not to share your rations!'

Still not comprehending, I said, 'But, there was no one else around. I didn't mean for nobody to choke him…'

'Are you really that stupid, private? He died because you disobeyed orders. His system had been starved so long it didn't know what to do with real food. It choked the life out of him! Do you understand that, private?'

I did. And I stood in that spot as the rest of the troops went by. I just stared at his corpse until one of the last guys tapped me and nudged me on. I don't remember the walk back or the details I was given to do. I remember not eating for days, and that when I did, I felt a small bit of the choking he must have felt. I still think about him a lot, still think about what happened in that terrible place."

Three more puffs and a downward motion of his head told me he was finished.

As a child used to being comforted, I felt the need to comfort my father. I began with, "...But Daddy, it wasn't your fault. You didn't know what…"

My words dropped off as I caught one snap of his dark eyes, sharp and coal deep under lowered eyebrows. I knew then, even in my child's way, that forgiveness was not mine to grant, nor was it my father's to receive. Because of his actions, someone had lost a kind grandfather, uncle, or father.

There were no more words. I simply sat with him until the air quit hurting, hugged his still tense back, and went to bed.

After that night, we never talked again of wartime or the old man. I didn't know until long after my father's passing that I was the sole repository for this, his most painful remembrance, but I think it enabled me to see my father through clearer eyes for the remainder of his life. I knew why he rode our bicycles at Christmastime, why he flirted with waitresses, why he rarely missed a sunrise, and why he drank a beer, one German beer, each summer. It was because my daddy, he sought to fulfill two lives instead of one, the one he felt blessed to have and the one he carried around on his small, bony shoulders.

***

Kimberly Parrott is an English teacher and a military spouse, currently living in England near Cambridge. She grew up in Atlanta, when it was Southern, not international. She has been an educator for ten years. It was her participation in a Santee Cooper workshop of the National Writing Project that renewed her interest in writing. The National Writing Project helps Language Arts teachers learn to instruct writing by encouraging and inspiring the teachers to become writers.

© Kimberly Parrott

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012