Los Angeles, CA–“When he took me to Europe one summer we went to the site of the forced labor camp at Ohrdruf, which his unit, the 4th Armored Division of Patton’s Third Army, helped liberate, and later to the museum at Dachau, an extermination camp. As we walked around, I could tell my father was moved.
“He knelt down and put his hands on my shoulders. He said, ‘Joey, someday somebody’s going to tell you this didn’t happen. But I was here, and I saw it. The Germans murdered these people, millions of them.’ As he got up he said, ‘Never turn away from the truth, no matter how ugly.'”
The story below was sent to me last year by a reader. It really belongs in Tim Russert’s Wisdom of Our Fathers.
Chester James Staub, May 4th, 1912 – January 13th, 1997
Today is the tenth anniversary of my father’s death. Every year I send out a reminder and perhaps an anecdote. But ten years is enough, so I’ll finish, and I’ll do so with sharing the eulogy I delivered at his memorial service. I spoke extemporaneously then, but I remember most of what I said. My father loved baseball. He loved pretty girls, big band music, and fast cars. He loved to dance. He loved his country and its flag and all that they stood for. He loved old movies. He loved to read, mostly 20th century history. He loved cold beer and grilled cheese sandwiches and potatoes fried in a skillet. He loved his family and he loved my mother, after a fashion. He loved Johnny Carson and Carol Burnett and the Newman character on Seinfeld.
But most of all he loved me. I know because he told me so, often. He always said that the best moment of his life was holding me for the first time, to be surpassed only, he would go on, by all the moments with me since then. He loved me deeply and wasn’t afraid to show it. But I tell you it wasn’t always easy, being loved like that. There were times he spoiled me, and other times when his adoration made it hard for him to see me as I was, and vice versa. But we worked it out, he and I, and we came to know each other, and I learned from it all that a great love is, as he said, a flame that can both illuminate and burn.
I am not sure he loved my mother, or she him. It was clear to me very early on that they had only married to give me a stable home. I knew they loved me, and they were certainly civil and even social with each other, but that was all. Perhaps they had tried to make it work at one point, but by the time I was in junior high it had become merely a waiting game. I told them once, when I was in seventh grade, that they didn’t have to stay together because of me, I was fine. We were eating dinner when I brought it up, and my father turned to me, put down his fork, and said, “What’s between your mother and me is none of your damn business. We love you. That’s all you need to know.” My mother added, “That goes for me, too, Joey.” And so it went. When I left home they split up, and
whatever deal they had made, they took to their graves. Maybe there wasn’t so much love between them, but I learned from him and her something about the nature of sacrifice and, more importantly, that they were right: it wasn’t any of my business and some things ought not to be.
My father taught me much. It’s because of him I’m an early riser. When he would leave for work at 5 AM he would kiss me goodbye. But I would insist on walking him to the door and kissing him good-bye there. Then I figured out if I woke up early enough, I could have breakfast with him and my mother, and that was it – I was an early riser from then on.
I had to kiss him goodbyes, you see. In fact, I always kissed him if I was going to leave his presence for a significant amount of time. Perhaps it as a holdover from his very European parents. Once, in 10th grade, when he gave me a ride to school, I didn’t kiss him when he let me out of the car because some of my friends were standing there. I knew he was disappointed, and it bothered me so much that I ditched first-period math, walked home, and apologized. He was pleased, even when he barked at me to “get the hell back to school on the double.” Another lesson: show your love. He told me once: “Never love anybody and not tell them; never tell anyone you love them if you don’t.”
I inherited my love of history from him. When he took me to Europe one summer we went to the site of the forced labor camp at Ohrdruf, which his unit, the 4th Armored Division of Patton’s Third Army, helped liberate, and later to the museum at Dachau, an extermination camp. As we walked around, I could tell my father was moved. He knelt down and put his hands on my shoulders. He said, “Joey, someday somebody’s going to tell you this didn’t happen. But I was here, and I saw it. The Germans murdered these people, millions of them.” As he got up he said, “Never turn away from the truth, no matter how ugly.” I think that why he read so much modern history. I think he was trying to make sense of the horror he witnessed. As if anyone could. Perhaps that’s also why he was active in the veteran’s organizations. When he died he had nearly six figures in the bank. But he stayed in his cramped little apartment largely because he couldn’t bear to leave his old World War II drinking buddies at the neighborhood bars. His will stipulated the money go to good causes if I died before him: the Disabled American Veterans and the University of Missouri, where he was planning to go before the Depression changed his plans. I sent the money even though I wasn’t dead.
He won a Bronze Star for gallantry in combat in that war, by he way. During the Battle of the Bulge he knocked out a Tiger tank that had broken through the lines. He drew it out into the open and directed the fire that destroyed it. And I would never have known if I hadn’t found the medal in his sock drawer. It was “no big deal.” Somebody would have destroyed that tank if I hadn’t, he would say. But later I found out there wasn’t anybody else – just my father and his Sherman tank crew. And those who know will tell you it was almost impossible for a Sherman to destroy a Tiger without getting very, very close. Lucky, stupid, brave. My father admitted the first two readily, and the third only grudgingly.
He was just that: gallant. In every sense of the word. He was flawed, as are we all, and I could tell hundreds of stories about him and all they would reveal was that he was a man, a rare thing in his day and probably always. I could tell you how in his eighties he would watch the high school baseball team practice, and all the young ballplayers would come over to him, touch their caps and say, “Good afternoon, Mr. Staub, can you look at my swing?” or “How do you throw a splitter, again, sir?” Or how we once dated a grandmother and granddaughter pair. Or how he had a job up to a month before he died. Or how he taught me how to hit a baseball by making me swing at a marble he pitched to me. Or how much he enjoyed having me sing to him. Or how he got arrested for running booze in Kansas in the thirties. Or how he stopped smoking because I told him it was what I wanted for my thirteenth birthday. Or how on his deathbed he told me loved me, and how I told him to let go, that I loved him and would be all right, which is what he was waiting for.
He was a man, and he was my dad. And now, even more than his blood in my veins, it is his soul in me that makes me his son. I miss him and I honor that soul and what it taught me. I charge his friends and mine to do the same.
January 13th, 2007