How My Grandfather Won the War and Other Driving Tales
Phoenix has the most incredible infrastructure I have ever seen. The roads are pristine and well thought out road signs made it easy for the blindest driver to find their way around the city. Yet Grandpa remained an infamous road hazard. I dreaded riding with him as one would dread the dropping of the boat ramp at Omaha Beach on D-day. His weapon of choice was the biggest Cadillac he could find. He joked that he needed a new model every two years because “the ashtrays would be full.”
With a giant cigar clenched in his lips, he would order me into the car and climbed behind the steering wheel. A turn of the key once the engine was running and the alternator’s screech would snap him back into a moment of reality.
“SON OF A B!” he would swear, as he put the garage-sized car into gear.
I would take a quick glance at his house and wonder if I would ever see it again. Off we’d move while he hummed some unrecognizable tune between puffs of his cigar. He was mobile and that was his greatest joy.
Once Grandpa was on the road, his own set of rules took over. The broken white lines that divided lanes became his guide to stay on the road. Moving with a bit of a back and forth swerve, he would have the line planted directly under his El Dorado. His stature of five feet nothing was bolstered only by the width of his beaded seat cover. My six foot height shrank as I slumped in the seat next to him, awaiting the inevitability of someone in a passing car throwing bad looks, a middle finger or hot lead towards Grandpa, through me, of course.
It never took long for the line of other vehicles to pile up behind the Caddy. Honking and shouting never phased him. “Go around me! Go around me!” Grandpa always shouted with his windows rolled up, believing they could see him waving inside his car.
“MOVE IT, GRAMPS!”
“GET THAT BOAT OFF THE ROAD!”
Those were two of the more popular and printable shouts of encouragement Grandpa would receive from those driving behind the S.S. Immovable object, as I had deemed his car. I had learned, at a very young age, that Grandpa didn’t like any suggestions about driving tips. Phrases like “this is a one way street,” “the turn you wanted was back there about 36 miles” and “gee, that sign said missile testing range” was met with a cold stare that chilled one better than the air conditioner he refused to use in the 115 degree Arizona heat.
“Um, Grandpa,” I gulped, stepping into the forbidden territory. “perhaps you should get over to the right and let these people pass?”
The stare came my way. I shivered and Grandpa’s lips parted. “Did I ever tell you about how I stopped the German advance on Bastogne?”
“You mean when you went on vacation to Europe last year?” I mumbled to myself.
“It was 1944,” he started. Most of his stories started in 1944, back when a whole house cost a nickel, or something like that and the world was a “better place” even thought millions were dying horrid deaths. “I was lead driver with the army’s Red Ball Express.”
“Wasn’t that an African-American division, Grandpa?”
“And Jews!” He shot back with his index finger pointing in the air. “They didn’t like any of us, always giving us nuclear bombs to deliver and driving beautiful hookers to those Christian officers at the front.” I was dumbfounded, as per usual, but intrigued. The stories tended to change, depending on the weather and if we were headed to lunch or dinner.
“I was guarding the rear with my truck and we had fallen behind the rest of the company.”
“Really,” I said. “I’m so surprised.” “They lost you by going over 40 miles per hour?”
“I could see the entire German army coming up in my rear view mirror.”
“They were doing the speed limit, I suppose?”
“It was thousands of trucks, heading for the front, loaded with secret weapons, ammo and hundreds of allied prisoners.”
“Was Hitler driving?” I asked, clasping my hands, feigning anticipation of the answer.
“NO!” He shot back, delighted I was taking interest in his story. “But I always suspected that Himmler was in the passenger seat of the lead truck!”
“I kept driving as fast as I could, but they caught up to me and started yelling things in German!”
“Was it ‘SCHNELL!’ or something like that?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I was busy trying to wave them to go around me,” he said waving his hand around wildly. “It turns out that I held that column up so long, that they didn’t arrive at the front until four days after Germany surrendered to the allies!”
“I don’t doubt it,” I said. “By the way, Grandpa, we’re going to miss the early bird special at the restaurant if you don’t schnell it a bit here.”
“Yep,” he beamed, “Eisenhower himself decorated me for winning the war.”
I looked over at my smiling Grandfather. The man I always knew as a bit odd, argumentative and stubborn was quite pleased with himself. Although the entire German army and every driver in Phoenix has yelled at him while he careened down the road, it didn’t matter; He was deaf as a post anyway.
I think I have always been amazed that my grandfather and his peers did what few men could. They rushed machine guns, parachuted in the dark behind enemy lines, sailed wide oceans with lurking enemy submarines and flew through showers of flack, yet they are all afraid to drive over 40 miles and hour on the highway. I may not have proved myself on the battlefields of Europe or islands in the South Pacific, but I could merge into highway traffic without filling a pair of Depends.
I looked over at him as we pulled into the parking lot of his favorite restaurant for the 3:30 early bird dinner special. “I’m very proud of you, Grandpa.”
He turned and smiled at me. “After dinner, ” he said, “why don’t you drive us home.”
” I’d feel safer if the hero of World War Two is driving me,” I said, smiling back at him,
“World War Two?” he shouted. “Did I ever tell you how I stopped the German advance on Bastogne?”
I held the restaurant door for him and put my hand on his shoulder. “No. Tell me about it.”
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