By Jim Benning
An Innocent Abroad (Lonely Planet, 2014)
I‘d always assumed my father had killed people. He’d never talked about it. To be fair, I’d never asked him. I’d never had the nerve.
But today was different. We were away from home, and through the paradigm-shifting power of travel, I felt emboldened. I was driving our rented Opel station wagon through the Belgian countryside, past fields dotted with wildflowers and fat cows. I was thirty. He was seventy-six, a gentle man with short, gray hair and big glasses.
I kept my eyes on the road and took a deep breath.
“Dad, in all of the time you’ve talked about the war, you’ve never talked about having to shoot people.”
It wasn’t exactly a question—more of an observation. It was the best I could do.
My dad grew quiet and looked out the window.
“Who wants to talk about something like that?” he said.
He had a point. The afternoon sunlight reflected off the Opel’s silver hood. I wondered whether to press on or drop the subject forever.
Father-son relationships are rarely easy, but my dad is one of the “Greatest Generation”—men who grew up during the Depression, fought in World War II and, upon returning home, were often frustratingly quiet and inscrutable. My dad was 46 when I was born. The older I got, the more aware I became of the gulf between us—not just the decades or our differing diction (my dad was old enough to call companies “outfits”), but in the way we talked about our lives. He was a good man—always supportive—but he could be remote, and even, I thought at times, unknowable.
I longed to bridge the divide, and I was just young enough to think I could. Like many sons of veterans, I thought my father’s years at war might hold a key to understanding him—that somewhere in the bloom of youth and the trauma of combat, the kernel of the man I knew was formed. What’s more, I believed in the power of travel to work magic: Blend enough time and movement in a foreign place and a kind of alchemy can occur. Things can happen—good things—that might not occur back home. So I asked my dad to travel with me to Western Europe, to show me some of the places where he’d fought. If I were lucky, I’d return home feeling closer to him, and maybe, by extension, a little more at peace with myself, too.
We landed in Paris on a cool spring afternoon and wasted no time in hitting the road, exploring small towns where he’d been. One afternoon, we headed for Bastogne in Belgium. In December of 1944, the German army attacked Allied troops here, igniting the Battle of the Bulge. At the time, my father was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. He was soon embroiled in combat and would be for days.
We wandered into a museum and watched a short documentary about the battle. Black-and-white footage showed American soldiers marching through snow. Explosions flashed on the screen, along with photos of corpses. My father was sitting beside me, and I heard his breathing change. He wiped his eyes.
Afterward, we drove past towering evergreens. He was quiet.
“How did you feel watching the movie, dad?”
My father was capable of wide-ranging political conversations. I hated asking a question that sounded better suited for a child, but in this case, I thought conversational baby steps might be the best approach.
“Just seeing all that. It was such an awful war.”
As we drove on, I thought about my dad’s teen years. He’d grown up in St. Louis. When the U.S. entered the war, he and three of his brothers enlisted. My father was just 17 at the time—still a kid, really. He took part in some of the war’s worst fighting, including the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, in which tens of thousands of Americans were killed. I wondered how much of my dad’s reticence was innate, and how much was shaped by those battles. I thought about how we still don’t have a good way to measure the toll war takes on survivors, and the way war’s effects could be passed along in one form or another from fathers to sons, and mothers to daughters—a kind of lingering post-traumatic stress that trickles down, however subtly, through generations. I thought about the grief my father seemed to carry at times, and wondered if it was the same grief I sometimes felt, seemingly inexplicably.
I didn’t mention any of this. In fact, I was so quiet my dad grew concerned.
“How are you doing?” he said.
Maybe this was an opening.
“Okay, I guess. You don’t always have much to say. It can be hard sometimes.”
“You think that’s unusual?”
“Just a generational difference between us, I think.”
He grew quiet. We passed a creek.
“Pretty river,” he said.
When we pulled into downtown Bastogne in the afternoon, I had a hard time finding a parking place. I spotted a tight spot along the road and backed into it, accidentally tapping the bumper of the car parked behind us. A big, gray-haired man got out. He waved his hand at his bumper, shouting something in French I couldn’t understand.
I got out and raised my hands apologetically.
“Pardon, monsieur,” I said.
He rattled off something angrily.
I shook my head. “Non parlez français,” I said.
He furrowed his brow and looked puzzled. “Non français?”
My dad was standing next to me now. I gestured toward him.
“American,” I said.
He studied my dad’s gray hair and slim frame.
“American?” he said.
My dad and I nodded.
The man’s expression softened. He bowed toward us, as if to show deference.
“Très bien,” he said.
Then he got back into his car and drove off.
I couldn’t believe it. Never in all of my overseas travels had being an American actually been an asset.
“I bet he lived through the war,” my dad said, smiling.
That, I thought, was a little magic.
A couple of days later, we drove toward Stavelot, another Belgian town that played a role in the Battle of the Bulge. My dad recalled a bridge in the area being blown, and having to march while carrying 30-caliber machine gun canisters. He remembered mortar rounds raining down. He and others attacked a farmhouse occupied by German soldiers.
Which brings us back to the moment I’d been waiting for—the moment I chose to ask him about shooting people. I didn’t want to force my dad to discuss the subject if he didn’t want to. I mean, I assumed that to survive the kind of fighting he did, he’d had to kill. But if I’m honest, I wanted to push him into uncomfortable territory. I wanted him to open up, to talk to me, to tell me things. I wanted to connect.
My first attempt rebuffed, I tried a slightly different approach.
“You must have had to fire at people just to defend yourself.”
After this, I would drop the subject. My dad could reply if he felt up to it, or he could simply leave the statement hanging there, like a dangling question mark.
A moment passed. He was quiet.
“I shot people,” he said, finally.
I glanced at him. He was looking out the window.
“You become callous to it in combat,” he said. “You fire at a guy, see him drop, then fire at someone else. You don’t dwell on it.”
“You’re probably just too concerned with staying alive,” I said.
“Definitely. In spite of what some guys say, I was scared to death. I never got over that. I don’t think you can come away from that unscarred.”
“How could anyone?”
“I’ve always been a private person, perhaps to a fault,” he said. “The war probably exacerbated that.”
No, this wasn’t a great revelation. But I was touched that my dad opened up about it. For him, and for me, that was no small thing.
Not long after we returned home to California, my father began complaining that words were escaping him. Over the subsequent years, his memory faded. As I write this, he is 90, with advanced dementia. He has trouble speaking. He remembers very little—at least little he is able to communicate. I’m left with photos, and the moments from our journey that I can remember.
One memory is vivid: The day after we got home from Europe, my dad sat at the dinner table with my mom and opened up a map, tracing his finger along the roads we’d driven. He told a few war stories, and recalled stories from our trip. His eyes were glowing. He was as happy and as alive as I’d ever seen him. Ironically, he couldn’t stop talking. At one point, he looked up at me and said, “You’re a great travel companion, Jim. I’d travel with you anywhere.”
Of course, we won’t be traveling again. The time for that has passed. My dad is more remote than ever. But we did make this trip together, and for a few precious moments, the gulf between us shrank. I felt closer to my dad, and I think he felt closer to me. This is the story I tell myself—now more than ever.