Wednesday, July 1, 2009

They Were Hollywood

With July 4th this Saturday, Steve and I have been getting in a patriotic mood with a weeklong marathon of Band of Brothers. It's so inspiring and humbling to see the way these men sacrificed for our country. Of course, every time I watch something like that I'm reminded of another veteran who served our country. To honor him, I thought I'd post an essay I wrote about my grandmother's late husband. Enjoy reading about Scheller Garlock, 1922-2008.

They Were Hollywood

You probably wouldn’t have guessed it if you had seen him that day, ordering his dinner at the Mountain View Diner in Frederick, Maryland. There’s usually nothing that marks our veterans of foreign wars, nothing on the outside anyway. And that day he was just Scheller Garlock, a man ordering a massive plate of French fries smothered in cheese and gravy in complete disregard of dietary concerns. If diabetes, two heart attacks, and two wars didn’t kill him, the greasy plate of fries weren’t likely to either. At the time, as I sat across from him watching him eat his unhealthy fare just to annoy his wife, my grandmother, all I knew was that he retired from the Army as a Major, loved Corvettes and golf, and that he loved to fix things. Sure, I knew that he fought in World War II and Korea. He frequently participated in events for the VFW and the Korean War Veteran’s Association. I guess I just never thought about his story.

Then Scheller was interviewed for the Library of Congress’ Veteran’s History Project, which archives documents and interviews (both recorded and written) of veterans from World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the Iraq war. A woman and a videographer sat with Scheller for over three hours and questioned him about his entire military career and his life. Though the Project archives data from multiple conflicts, recording WWII veterans’ stories seems the most urgent. According to many sources, more than 1,000 WWII veterans die every day. With each passing, another story is lost.

Scheller Garlock’s story, however, will not be lost. In addition to the copy that is archived with the Library of Congress, several family members, including myself, have a copy of his interview. In the video, which lasts over three hours, he sits in his favorite recliner, his face and shoulders the only thing in the frame, and tells the story of his service in the United States Army.

Growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, during the Great Depression, Scheller and his family learned early how to get by on very little. Raised by his mother after his father left the family, he became a breadwinner at a young age. When he left high school to join the Army, he said that his mother could hardly complain since he was the one trying to provide. This is not a story of hardship, however. Like many of his generation, Scheller focuses his story on all the things he had, the experiences, the friends, but mostly, his stories ended with girls.

“Along came the army war show,” Scheller says. “That was in 1942 after Tennessee maneuvers. A group of us were selected due to our size and height and appearance to go on a bond tour, around the country, selling war bonds and recruiting. And we started in Baltimore in the stadium on 23rd street, stadium where the Baltimore Colts used to play.” He smiles as he describes the reaction of their adoring female fans, “We were Hollywood. All the girls thought we were Hollywood, they wanted to know what movies we were in, had been in.” Then in his typical understated way he says, “It was pretty nice.”

Of course, the glamour couldn’t last forever, and he was eventually shipped off to the war that he had been promoting on his cross-country tour. Though one would hardly think of France in ’42 as somewhere you would want to go, Scheller saw it as preferable to the alternative. “I’d prefer Europe to the jungles of the Pacific,” he says. “[I] heard terrible stories about Pacific fighting.”

Sailing over in the USAT George Washington, they landed in southern France sometime after D-Day. The harbor of Marseilles was so heavily bombed that they had to enter it in landing craft. Once they were in France, the fighting started for Scheller in earnest. He tells stories in his cozy living room about German soldiers who stole the dog tags of dead Americans and faked their way across American lines. He says that if they were caught, they could be killed on the spot. He tells this fact without so much as a flinch, no coldness in his manner, just acceptance. The only time his detachment seems to falter is when he discusses fallen comrades. His promotion to officer was the result of a battlefield commission. “December 5th or 6th, Lt. Grubbs got killed in combat, bouncing betty in his face, and I took his place,” he said, his voice getting quiet. “He was a good guy, good officer, great young man from Alabama…Alan E Grubs, nice fellow, couldn’t replace him.”

Before the injury that took him out of the fighting, Scheller was injured once before. He mentions it as almost an aside to his story. “That wasn’t very serious,” he says. “I only went to the aide station, but they gave me a purple heart. It was shrapnel, mortar fire. I was in a barn. A mortar hit the door, and I had splinters in my face and in my neck. It wasn’t too bad. They picked it out. It was wood mostly.” His dismissive tone makes the lady conducting the interview laugh off camera. His second injury, which earned his second purple heart, did take him out of the fighting, however, it didn’t seem to discourage him. “I was in the hospital when the war ended,” he says, grinning. “So I celebrated with the nurses.”

After WWII, Scheller left the service, only to return a short time later. His return to the Army took him to Germany to aid in the Berlin Airlift. His view on helping the people he had just risked his life to fight was philosophical. “Every German I met had never fought the Americans,” he says. “They always fought the Russians. I never met one who fought Americans. I don’t know who was shooting at us because they were all on the Russian front.” He laughs, and you can hear the interviewer laughing along off camera.

After his return from Germany, Scheller was eventually shipped off to Hawaii. This posh assignment didn’t last long, though. In July of 1950, he was sent off to fight in Korea. His thirteen months there were cold and hard, but they also yielded the most amazing of his stories.

“We were in this village, and we just came back off the line,” he says. “An enemy patrol came into the village. They were looking for a prisoner to take back with them for interrogation, and they came in from behind us.” Though the village was in a circle, they hadn’t placed any guards in the back, and the enemy snuck in hoping to find an unwitting soldier to torture and question.

When Scheller heard noises outside, he went to investigate. “I went outside on the porch,” he says. “I don’t know why I put my cap on.” A few seconds later, he saw movement, could tell it was a North Korean, and he shot. After that, there was no sound, just a drop of blood running down his head. He reached up his hand to touch a scratch where his cap, with its now dented lieutenant’s bars, had sat. It had been knocked off by the shot. Apparently, the North Korean had fired at exactly the same time. Only the bars on his hat saved his life.

The next morning, they found the North Korean dead. Shot in the throat, he couldn’t call for reinforcements. Scheller’s life was saved by a wool cap and a lucky shot. Unfortunately, one of the other American soldiers wasn’t so lucky. The North Koreans did find a prisoner that night, just not Scheller Garlock. When he tells this part of the story, the smile again slides from his face. He doesn’t know if the man they captured was ever released.

As I watch and re-watch the video of Scheller telling the stories of his wartime service with such calm and reserve, I am always amazed that this is the same man I knew and loved. It is so hard to imagine someone whose life you treasured being able to take the life of another. In the interview, he talks about a time when his young granddaughter asked him what it was like to kill somebody. He seemed unable to give answers to a child to such a complex question. That’s understandable. Sometimes I have trouble reconciling the man in these stories with the man who told me I was pretty because I had beautiful lips. How could it be the same man falling asleep petting my cat and shrugging off a wound involving flying shards of shrapnel and wood?

Perhaps the unassuming nature of these veterans is a reason why we need things like the Veteran’s History Project. How many families are living with men, and women, like Scheller who fought so hard for our country, and then quietly stepped back into the shadows to live their lives? Without this video interview, I would never have known that Scheller was once the Cary Grant of the Army set, or that tiny lieutenant’s bars could save your life. All I would know is that once upon a time he used to be in the Army.

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