Few dads are left to tell what it was like in WWII

May 29, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The Baltimore News-Post that day gave hints of the beginning of the end: "Allies Crush Fierce Nazi Counter-Attacks," the front page headline said. Nowhere did it use the phrase "D-Day," but maybe it didn't have to. The beginning of the end, indeed: June 7, 1944, the day the newspapers reported the Allied invasion to end the war in Europe.

"What was it like back then, Dad? Can you remember what it was like, old fella?"

Baltimoreans could turn on WCAO-Radio that night, 50 years ago, and listen to Frank Sinatra's live weekly broadcast. They could go to Loews Century and see Van Johnson, June Allyson and Gloria DeHaven in "Two Girls and A Sailor," or shop at Gutman's, at Lexington and Park, and buy women's dresses for $5.98, or men's sport shirts for $1.39, or . . .

"Yeah, Dad, but the war. Can you tell us about the war?"

The war? Well, the city could take some pride in a United Press story halfway down the front page that day: "Baltimorean First to Invade Europe." It said:

"Lt. Abe Condiotti, a 23-year-old Spanish-Jewish American boy from Brooklyn, today commanded the first wave of small assault boats which set troops ashore in this section of Adolf Hitler's Europe. Condiotti's own boat actually was the first to touch on the beaches. The boat carried members of an infantry company commanded by Capt. Leonard T. Schroeder, Jr., 25, who comes from Baltimore, Md., and is of old German-American stock . . ."

"OK, Dad, but tell us what it felt like. Can you remember, Dad?"

There was Nate's and Leon's Deli on North Avenue back then, and Alan Gale making customers laugh at the Club Charles. Montgomery Ward was running ads offering part-time "safe, clean and enjoyable" work to women whose husbands were temporarily stationed here. The top Baltimore sports story of the day: The Charles Center duckpin bowling tournament, in which the winners would share $410 in war bonds and stamps.

"But the war, dad. You were there, remember? What was it like in the war?"

The war? It's all there in that old News-Post, isn't it?

"German armored counter-thrusts have been thrown back near Caen and Allied forces are striking forward on a broad front in which heavy air-borne reinforcements have been thrown into heavy fighting," it says right there on the front page.

"Allies Fly More than 31,000 Sorties," it says.

"Allied Tanks Routing Nazis," it says.

It's all there, isn't it? Isn't it?

Well, no, not exactly. There are stories with foreign datelines, and there's a huge photograph of the Yanks storming the beach. But, if you want more than that, if you want to know what it felt like, it's beginning to get tougher to have Dad explain the way it was.

The nation marks Memorial Day this weekend, and the 50th anniversary of D-Day at the end of the week. In 50 years, the dads who were there, the ones who risked their tomorrows, the ones who died on the beaches and even the lucky ones who made it back, are getting tougher to find.

And, with their disappearance, we begin to lose the feel for that time, the details behind old newspaper headlines, the nuances of how it felt to be alive back then when they knew life could end on some strange beach in some foreign land in some splinter of a second.

So we watch the television specials now, and watch the old black and white footage of 50 years ago, and wonder: Not just, What was it like back then but, How would I have held up in that same nightmare?

This is the hour when sons wonder if they could have been as brave as their fathers, and a lot of the fathers are no longer around to tell us how it really was, to help us measure our own capacities.

The old film footage, vivid as it is, makes it a little too easy for us. The old soldiers remember dancing with the British dollies in the weeks of pre-invasion waiting, and it doesn't sound too bad. They remember the joking on that rough ride across the English Channel, and we think, Yeah, that's me. I'd have been cool.

We watch the bodies floating on the morning tide, we hear the tales of fear, but it doesn't entirely register. From here, we've been given safe passage. We know things will turn out OK. So we allow ourselves a little second-hand frisson of courage, a little vicarious bravery. It's not us lying there on the beach, it's us a little later, in the front seat of the jeep, giving kisses and candy bars to pretty French girls with flowers in their hands.

Time steals. The News-Post, now gone and turned into a parking lot, tried to get it right. The stories and the pictures are there. The television specials are well-intended, but the networks have their own needs: the swelling background music, the quick cutting to get us swimming in the drama and floating past the dangerous edges.

We're left wanting more, wanting to know how the human heart felt back then, wanting to hear it from people no longer around, wanting to know how we might have held up, had we walked in our fathers' shoes.

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