May 22, 2013
The Invisible Man
Posted on May 9, 2012
By Mr. Fish
There’s a story that I grew up hearing over and over again about my great-uncle Eddie being blown to smithereens in Tunisia during World War II. In one version, it was a land mine that did it, and in another it was a mortar round from a German Leichter Granatwerfer 36. The single most important detail that had everybody retelling the story, the one that everybody could agree on, was the one about how Eddie’s left leg, from just below the kneecap down, was still standing upright when the smoke cleared after the explosion. In fact, it was all that was left of him.
“Those krauts couldn’t even knock him down, boy!” hacked an old lunatic named Izzy (whom my mother designated as her first asshole twice removed on her mother’s side) at a family barbecue over Memorial Day weekend in 1973, his breath smelling like it had been inhaled from the soggy bunghole of a pickle barrel and exhaled through a cat. “No, sirree!” he slurred, steadying himself with his big hammy hand heavy on my 7-year-old shoulder. “That great-uncle of yours had balls! That leg of his should be in the goddamn Smithsonian!”
It was a difficult image to erase from my mind and one that I was seldom without during moments of quiet, most usually when I was trying to fall asleep at night. After all, here was this relative of mine who was flesh and blood, my flesh and blood—flesh and blood that was made no more or less invincible by the American flag stitched like a talisman onto its uniform, an M-1 Garand semiauto rifle slung at its side as if it were a megaphone for God Almighty, a green mixing bowl strapped to its fresh crew cut as if it were an admission that neither a talisman nor a God were reliable protections against the treachery of men engaged in warfare—and all of a sudden there was a gruesome flash of light and an earsplitting crack in the atmosphere. The relative was instantly gone, except for his leg, this abandoned limb waiting for instructions from a brainstem that had been atomized. It seemed a horrible encroachment of cartoon buffoonery into real life and made me wonder whether Chuck Jones might not be a more reliable authority on universal design than any monk, mullah or king.
Th-th-th-that’s all folks!!
Eddie’s military portrait, which looked like a Hollywood publicity still from MGM, was hung in the municipal building at town hall, in the east corridor that led to the council chambers. It was right next to the most popular water fountain on the first floor and had much better lighting than did the portrait of John F. Kennedy facing from the opposite wall. I remember glancing over at the Kennedy portrait, which was a crappy oil painting, and imagining that it had been rendered by somebody using a box of Q-tips and whose elbow was constantly being nudged by a llama starved for attention. My grandmother would sometimes take my brother, sister and me out for Slurpees at the local 7-Eleven and then walk us over to where we could cool ourselves in the air conditioning and stare at my great-uncle’s picture and envision that the whole world was basking in the exquisite mellifluousness of our loss.
We were standing outside the elephant enclosure at the Philadelphia Zoo when I first noticed my grandfather’s peculiar habit of grinding his cigarette butts into pulverized tobacco crumbs. Of course, he’d been doing it for years, but when you’re 7 years old you suddenly start seeing things that, though they may have been happening all along, appear brand new because they coincide with burgeoning cognitive abilities that you never had before. It had also recently occurred to me that not everybody had a grandmother who, armed with only her pocketbook and a housedress stuffed with used balls of Kleenex and half-rolls of wintergreen Life Savers, was able to steal whole mannequins, piece by piece, from department stores and fill her backyard pool with the faux carnage because she thought it would be fun for the kids.
“It was just something we did during the war so the Germans wouldn’t know we were ever there,” said my grandfather, rubbing my back as we walked past the vulture cage. I could tell that he didn’t want to talk about it. It was his habit, whenever my brother and sister and I asked him to talk about anything from World War II, to say that there wasn’t anything to say about it, except that it was sad and a really horrible experience. Then he would light up a Lucky Strike. Then he would smoke it down to practically nothing and smash the butt. It always amazed us to see just how little evidence he left behind whenever we walked away from those unanswered questions.
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