The following is a work of fiction.
World War II History was the first class I circled on my community college enrollment form. While I was growing up, Dad watched countless films on the subject. When I was a kid, it annoyed me, but eventually, I would find myself beside him on the couch, fascinated by the stories of fearless young men–men only a few years older than myself–flying into, running and crawling through hell.
Five minutes into the first day of class, I became disappointed at the realization that it would be nothing like the days I spent couched with Dad in front of the History Channel. The professor was a late fifty-something lady with a skeletal frame and a bouffont that must have outweighed the rest of her body. Professor Colby was her name. My distaste for Professor Colby came the moment I saw her name inked upon the classroom’s white board. “Colby” always made me think of kolbe beef, which I’ve never had, and I don’t think I’ve ever even seen, but I could not hear her name and not experience the autonomic, mental hiccup – “kolbe beef” – pass through my consciousness.
Colby carried an irrepressible superiority complex as large as her dated hair-do, and it moved her to question the validity of many of the WWII films that Dad and I used to enjoy together. Any time the subject of this or that film came up, she would wrinkle her concave nose and raise her penciled-in eyebrows to the sky, saying, “You don’t actually BELIEVE that, do you?” As part of her exhaustive quest to enlighten her students on the non-propogandized tales of the war, Colby’s first assignment – given out the first day of class – was to locate and interview a living veteran of World War II. The audible groans that circulated the room were insignificant compared to my own internal and instanaeous groan. Blindly calling upon geriatric strangers–an introvert’s nightmare–was the last thing I expected to be tasked with at the start of my college career. There aren’t many of those old guys left, and the ones who are still alive are in no condition to speak to you; most could hardly recite their own names, much less answer the questions of an addlepated kid from the local community college.
But Captain Franks–when I found him at the Shady Acres retirement community–I call it “Shady Acres” just to be funny; it’s really called Parkview Manor, but I find that name to be forgettable; I like Shady Acres better; it’s the cliche’ that keeps on giving–when I found Frankie at the Shady Acres, it was the World War II vet tracking equivalent to scoring a date with the prom queen. The guy who sat next to me in class–he’d given up looking for a combat vet and had to settle for interviewing a nurse. It would have been cool were she a triage nurse stationed in France and Germany, but she wasn’t. She was a stateside nurse who took care of the soldiers after the limbs had already been blown off and the fragmented humanity stitched back together.
My relationship with Captain Franks was not intended to carry on so long. I simply needed sixty minutes of the old man’s time, but he got to me, I guess. He had this unhurried, deliberate way about him, and the way he spoke–I could tell he took a greater interest in me than seemed reasonable for a man with such a Large Story; I think that’s what started me coming back after our first meeting.
Captain Franks–“Frankie”, I came to call him–was like one of those characters in a movie who you think would never exist in real life, with pale-blue eyes, deep set beneath a snowy set of brows and a long face, ovaling a regal nose and rugged scars below his sloping lower lip and along the left line of his chin–mementos of his wartime adventures. Well into his eighties, he still owned a majestic plume of white hair that never budged from the meticulous styling instilled by the Captain. It was like he’d trained the strands of his hair to follow orders the same way he’d trained the men in his unit back during The War, and the manner of his training was a simple one; at least, he made it look easy. He looked you straight in the eyes, always in the eyes, disarming you of any sort of pretense or bullshit. Frankie did not practice bullshit, nor do I think he understood it, because he had none in him–never did. There’s no better guarantee you’ll be respected and revered than if you lack bullshit, because the only person who doesn’t bullshit you is the person who doesn’t care what others think of him. When I met Frankie, I thought he must be the last human on earth in which there was no deception. I decided at the start that I loved him for this, because I’ve felt most of my life that I am steeped in fakeness. And what a relief it was for me, a man fluent in bullshit, to be forced into speaking reality, for once.
Our first conversation started with me questioning his background, how he’d entered the military–he’d volunteered–, where he’d served–the Pacific. Frankie always furrowed his eyebrows when I asked him questions about the military or the war. At first, I thought the expression appeared from him formulating answers before I’d finished my questions. Later, I understood it wasn’t an indication of thoughtfulness, but one of perplexity. It was him thinking, Why would anybody be interested in this stuff? I thought it surprising that he never cared much whether or not he talked about his wartime experiences. A man like that, you’d think it would be all he wanted to talk about, because what else was there for the old guy to do, besides shuffle around the assisted living place, waiting for the next helping of lackluster, facility-imposed cuisine, or hanging in the community lounge, playing gin rummy while The Price is Right! droned in the background? I mentioned Frankie was a man lacking in bullshit; that’s true, but he also lacked in pride. Not dignity–he held that in plenty. But pride was absent in him. If you can imagine what it would be like to care for yourself without caring about yourself, then you can imagine Frankie. That was him. He cared without caring.
“You have a girlfriend, son?” he interrupted me at one point during our first interview.
“You know, a lady? They’re a lot like us, but curvier and better looking!” he chuckled.
“Ahhhh, yeah. Well, sorta, I guess.” I said.
“You guess?” he leaned close to me, boring through me with steady eye contact. “What’s that supposed to mean? Don’t tell me; you’re one of them love ’em and leave ’em fellas?”
“No, sir! No, I just…” I stared at the prickly, blue-grey carpet on the floor of Frankie’s sparse apartment, suddenly desperate to escape his burrowing gaze. “I just wouldn’t call her my girlfriend, is all.”
“What’s her name?” he asked.
“Her name?” I became quite uncomfortable and started counting the reddish flecks intermixed within the carpet’s fibers.
“Yes! Her name. The one you wouldn’t call your girlfriend?”
“Carla. Her name’s Carla.”
“And why does Carla lack the privilege of being called your girlfriend?” I knew the Captain’s eyes drilled into me still, though my own eyes remained fixed to the floor.
“It’s not that…” I mumbled through a clog of snot in my throat. “It’s the other way around, you see.”
“Ah, ‘She’s just not that into you’, is that it?” he said.
The reference to such a modern cliche’ caught me off guard, causing me to chuckle a bit. “Nah, it’s just…I guess I don’t know. I don’t know if she’s into me. She likes talking to me, from what I can tell.”
“What does she like to talk about?” he asked.
“God stuff, mostly.” I said. “She does stuff with her church–mission trips, that sorta thing.”
“Go to church with her.” Frankie said, abrubtly.
“I don’t know. I haven’t been to church much. I think I wouldn’t know what to do there. I’d feel stupid.” I wondered how in the world we’d gone from talking about his military background to my love life.
“That’s why you gotta go there, son.” Frankie said, and his words came out in a way that was measured. For some reason, this was important to him. I don’t think I’ll ever understand why, but to Frankie, it was important that I learn how to relate to this girl. “Take an interest in what interests her.” he said. “At least try to take an interest. If you do that; if you’re sincere about it, you can win over almost any gal. If you try her church stuff out, and it doesn’t suit you, then there ain’t much point in pursuing her, is there?”