I took my son for a walk this afternoon. It is late June and the weather is still rather nice in St. Louis. Mid 80s with a nice north wind; not upper 90s, soupy air and pop-up thunderstorms.
While on this walk I met Carl.
Carl is my neighbor. I’ve stopped and talked to him once before but not for very long. This time, for whatever reason, I decided to stop and chat. Luckily my one year old didn’t mind sitting in the stroller; watching the cars drive by.
Carl lives about two blocks north on the other side of a T-shaped intersection. We live on the same side of the street; a major street that leads in, through, and out of our neighborhood. It’s a thoroughfare for our neighborhood but a sidewalk when compared to Olive, Lindbergh, or Page Ave.
There is a three way stop at the intersection and it is one of the few stops on the street. There is a curve leading north, out and away from our neighborhood. People drive too fast (about 30 in a 20 zone) around this curve and into the intersection (sometimes stopping, sometimes slowing, sometimes blowing through).
More than once during our conversation Carl would yell or wave his arms at people he deemed going too fast. Most of the time they weren’t driving much over the speed limit, but to Carl they were all “doing 40 mph, driving like hell.” This is what initiated the conversation: Carl explaining to me that people drive too fast.
Next, Carl, for a reason unknown to me, continued our conversation by telling me that he was 93 and in The War. He told me he was a POW in Germany for three months.
“Had a half a loaf of German rye bread between seven men. That’s all, for the day. Not sure how we survived, but we did.”
He explained that he was moved two times in the three months. The first place was like a normal prison camp. Bunked up in a large cabin with just a wooden bed and no blanket.
When his was moved the first time it was to a different prison. When he first arrived he thought it better.
“We had mattresses, or something like mattresses. I thought; great, a mattress. But they were infested with bed bugs. Oh, how they bit me every night around my ankles and legs.”
This place wasn’t better. The food was still bad, though he said they gave him coffee; or something like coffee.
“They said it was coffee but I don’t know. It sure tasted bad. It was brown and hot.”
The second time they moved him they never made it to wherever they were going.
“They were moving us to Austria for some reason. We’d sleep in the rye fields. Still the same loaf of bread between seven guys. But the fields were better than the bed bug mattresses. The grass was soft”
He said he had trouble walking because of all the bug bites. He scratched them and a few became infected. He had what he called a shoepac. This wasn’t tight enough and his feet slipped around. He had a buddy who gave him his leather boots and wore the shoepac.
They were liberated in that field.
That’s all he said about the war.
Carl looks the part. All WW II veterans begin to look the same at this age. Thin and about, I assume, half a foot shorter than their younger selves. Squared face. Able to wear pants and a collared shirt in the summer and look comfortable. He wears a beige baseball type hat. The front is flat and rises straight to a point. A similar colored rope fills the crook between bill and cap. It has a General McCarthy look to it.
Carl is 93 but doesn’t look it. I would have guessed early 80s. He moves around his yard with no cane or walker. I’ve seen him do yard work, but not has much as in previous years (I’ve lived up the street from Carl for a decade).
Carl’s wife Anna died a year and a half ago. He told me it was Alzheimer’s. He said it was bad. She was home with him the entire time. He said toward the end she was silent. His daughter, who lives nearby, would come over every night and help with dinner and bedtime routines.
Carl met Anna when they were 14. I can tell Carl misses her. He smiled a lot when talking about her, even with her death in the near past. He says his daughter still comes over often; usually for dinner. He said she gives him hell for not changing his bed sheets often enough.
“Hell, I don’t sweat and I’m not doing anything in them. Why do I need to change them? But, I guess that’s how she was raised.”
Carl says he’s starting to have trouble remembering names (I could see a little of it when talking about his daughter. He couldn’t remember the street she lived on).
He still seems quick and sharp to me. He did tell me the same story twice while talking to him but I think that’s less a sign of age and more a sign of gender.
“It makes me so damn mad. I can remember being four and my parents getting a new heater to replace our wood stoves. That I can remember. But I can’t remember names. I don’t need to know about the heater, why do I need that memory?”
My subdivision was built in the late 40s, early 50s, and Carl has been there since the beginning.
“This place (gesturing south) was all fields when I moved in. My friend would talk about hunting rabbits over here.”
At this time it was getting late and my son had had enough sitting. I told Carl we need to mosey on out.
Little moments like this make life so interesting. My conversation with him was the highlight of my day. And it was easy, casual, like I was interviewing him. It’s always nice to talk to someone who is warm, interesting, and also listens back.
Everyone has a story and I’d love to hear more about Carl’s.