Some people stick with you forever, in your mind, in your memories, and it’s not always who you think it’s going to be. Sometimes it’s the quiet ones, the silent, dignified ones that have an aura, ethereal, but tangible enough to leave an impression as deep as a blacksmith’s cold hammer in hot steel.
Carl Greenfield was like that. When I hear the word “soldier,” he is the man who comes to mind. He was a veteran of the Invasion of Normandy, the recipient of a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. He took a bullet to the ribs in the Battle of the Bulge. The world would be poorer had we lost him then.
All wars either shape or mangle men. Some are defined by the experience. In Carl’s case, I think it shaped him more than anything— because if you survive something like that, you learn you can handle just about anything.
He was handsome, silver hair, and seemed taller than he was because of the way he carried himself. Carl seemed to me to be a guy who took everything in but let very little out. It’s hard to explain how a man who said so little came to mean so much to me. He was my friend Bob’s father.
Carl died just a few weeks ago at the age of 93. I got to know Carl through Bob in more ways then one. Carl and Phyllis often visited when Bob and I shared an apartment on Railroad Avenue in Aberdeen. Bob and I met in college and were wildly different. He was disciplined and organized and I was anything but. I often raided Bob’s dorm room popcorn stash in the wee hours, and over the years I leaned on him time and time again. Bob fed me and kept a roof over my head more than once when times were lean, the kind debt one accrues that can never really be paid. He opened doors for me early in my radio career, and it’s safe to say my life would be something less without his friendship and loyalty. These are things that run in the blood.
It was Bob who told me about Carl’s life as a soldier over the years. Two years ago, when Bob and I met at Sturgis for the motorcycle rally, we went to visit Fort Meade where Carl had been stationed before shipping off to Europe in 1941. By this time, Carl was in a Watertown nursing home, his memories slowly fading away. Phyllis had been gone for years.
Bob and I toured the small museum that smelled of old leather, angst and prayers, dust and tradition. Somehow, when you walk the same ground, you understand better those who came before. In some small way, you become part of it. This is the nature of all pilgrimages.
I’ve been trying to understand why Bob waited more than two weeks to tell me Carl was gone. His email hit me like a sledge, memories flooding back of the man who stood taller than he was. But the more I think about, the better I understand. Carl Greenfield’s stoicism is alive and well in his son. Some pain you have to keep to yourself for a while, wrestle with it, subdue it, and then, and only then, can you speak of it. What does it matter that I wept two weeks too late? All lives require a certain measure of tears at the end. They may trickle, they may flood, they may take years to be delivered, but the allotment must be filled. You learn these things the hard way. These are things that cannot be taught.
In my occasional travels up and down the Interstate through eastern South Dakota, I veered off once to visit Carl and to see where my friend was raised. After he shown me every room in the house, Carl and I sat mostly in silence, and that was enough. It gave me a better sense of who my friend was. Those walls whispered to me. All walls do.
Bob’s email spoke of his father, of hot hours of penance in the yard in recent days. Sweat is like blood, and to mourn is to bleed. Somehow pain helps ease the pain. He said he would be going back to Sturgis this year for the rally in August.
I told The Redhead about Carl, about Bob’s planned trip back to the Black Hills, and I think we both imagined him on that long ride from Denver alone. “You should go,” she said quietly, firmly, wisely.
I’ll miss Carl Greenfield. There is a hole in the universe I can feel. It won’t go away, I’ll just get used to it. Time doesn’t kill us. It’s the accumulation of sorrows that are in the contract. We can take comfort knowing that some things endure. Each good man leaves behind him hope. There’s a lot of Carl Greenfield in his son.
August is coming soon.
A pilgrimage is in order.
Winter will be here sooner than we think.
© Tony Bender, 2012