(This story was excerpted and published in shorter form in the Indianapolis Star and Foster’s Daily Democrat, Dover, N.H.)
It was only shortly before he died that I discovered my father had kept secret his heroism in World War II.
It was fitting that Charlie Watson, consumed by emphysema, died on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1997, since his experiences during that war had shaped the last 40 years of his life.
On that nose-numbingly cold Sunday two years before his 2007 death and after years of passing himself off as a mere “radio-man” with the U.S. Army on the Italian front, he opened up.
Dad was dying at the time, living in the mill city of Dover, N.H., where I grew up. Maybe that’s why he dug out his sparkling Bronze Star medal, for 50 years hidden in its black, leather jacket in the cedar chest.
I learned so much that day about the man who already was my hero. He had taught me how to throw a spiral. He had sawed off the tops of his old softball bats so my twin brother and I could learn to hit a baseball with hardware appropriate for our 5-year-old hands. He had cheered me on at national bowling tournaments in Michigan and Tennessee as we competed as father and son. He had pushed me to become the first college graduate in his family. He also had taught the value of hard work and humility (“just get it done,” he would often say). He had taught that you’re judged not by who you are, but by what you do – and how well you do it.
Those values are the footnote to his life story.
I learned dad’s time in the 91st Infantry “Powder River” Division of the 5th Army had been arduous, particularly in 1944-45, when attention was focused on D-Day and the winning effort in France and Germany and away from the defensive struggle in Italy. He talked so fast and in such detail that day that I had to continually excuse myself, scurry to the bathroom and scribble notes on scraps of paper and on the backs of magazines. I desperately wanted to save those stories to pass along to my sons.
The Germans, he said, had knit their positions into the so-called Gothic Line, into the mountains that make up the Italian spine. Hitler’s 4th Paratroop Division of Field Marshall Albert Kesselring tied up the Allies. Tanks were hidden, pillboxes built and railroad guns set up everywhere.
This was dad’s war. He lived at the front, part of an advanced communications battalion, laying the wire that allowed radio traffic between forward positions.
The 5th had the edge in artillery. Proud U.S. Brig. Gen. Ralph Hospital once boasted that his 91st gunners had fired 14,321 rounds in a single 24-hour period in September 1944. That’s 596 rounds every hour – or 10 per minute.
Dad was in constant peril.
Ear-damaging explosions made it easier for me to understand why dad, later in life, always turned up the volume for “MacGyver,” his favorite television show. Stratofortresses pounded German positions. When the planes left, German guns rolled out of mountain passes on rails, to pound away at the Allied lines.
Dad saw death everywhere. Devastation. Corpses. Body parts. At one point, he pried a precious, pearl-handled Lugar pistol from the clutches of a dead German colonel, hiding it as a souvenir.
On that Sunday, I learned that dad had won the Bronze Star for “an act of singular heroism.”
It was March 1945, three months before the end of the war in Europe. Dad and two colleagues were stringing wire at the edge of a hill, far ahead of the Allied line and right below a large pillbox, manned by a platoon of Germans.
It was a typical structure at the Italian front – a concrete fortress camouflaged with a roof covered with several feet of logs and dirt, so thick that 105-mm shells bounced off. In front was a gun slit six inches high and three feet long.
Suddenly, the pill box lit up with German machine gunners and riflemen pinning down my dad and the others, chasing them into a trench. “We had Thompson machine guns, the best,” dad said. “But we were outnumbered.”
A firefight ensued. Dad felt he would be killed or captured.
Suddenly, however, after several minutes, all fell quiet. The Germans inexplicably put down their weapons and streamed down the hill, one by one. Maybe it was fear, maybe fatigue so near the end of hostilities, or maybe it was luck, but 28 Germans decided to surrender to three “radio men.”
Dad shook his head. “Still don’t know why the Germans quit,” he said with no emotion. As always, a man of few words.
Dad left Italy on a troop ship shortly after V-E Day in May. The 91st was bound for Japan, to be part of the landing force that would assault the Japanese homeland. It would be a giant, bloody effort, something to make D-Day small by comparison. Generals estimated the Allied casualties would be in the hundreds of thousands dead and wounded.
The nuclear horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have saved dad. The troop ship never reached Japan, though, as the war in the Pacific ended abruptly that August.
So, dad became a member of the so-called Class of ’46, a veteran who came back from World War II with his medal, haunting memories, a terrible smoking habit (military units were given Camels and Luckies by the wheelbarrow-ful), and little else. Someone had even stolen his insurance policy, that pearl-handled Lugar.
Dad said the cigarettes calmed his nerves. They would later kill him.
After the Japanese surrendered, dad left the service within months. He went back to his native New York City, where he enlisted shortly after Pearl Harbor.
BORN AN ENGLISHMAN
Dad was born in central England in 1921. His father, also named Charles, was a housepainter in Newcastle, the descendent of a long-established Scottish family, once named McWatt. The family traditionally sold furniture.
But dad’s father was a rogue. As a young man, he traveled across North America, living for a time in New York City, then San Francisco, then Winnipeg. While he was in Canada, World War I broke out, and he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force to fight the Germans.
After the war, he married Margaret Lynam, who stood all of 4-feet-10. He adopted her son by a first marriage, Vinny. In 1921, they had their first child, Charles William, my dad. Vinny, who was 5 when dad was born, later fought in Italy as well.
Grandfather’s wanderlust never went away. He and Margaret uprooted their family in 1923, settling in New York City while searching for house-painting jobs. Their first order of business was to buy dad some new shoes. He had thrown his only pair overboard from the passenger ship.
My grandparents had five children in all. They lived in a two-bedroom, tenement apartment at 334 West 47th Street in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. Initially, my ambidextrous grandfather had plenty of work as a painter and paper-hanger, and PS 51 was nearby to watch the kids.
The babies had come in rapid succession in the consumer-friendly time later known as the Roaring ‘20s. Dad was followed by John (1924), George (1926) and Dorothy (1929), who was as blonde as Jean Harlow, unlike her dark-haired brothers.
Black Model Ts dotted the street. In the mornings, working men and women – mostly Britons, Greeks and Italians — filed out of their flat-roofed, brown sandstone apartments to walk past the neighborhood police station and go to their working class jobs — at the old A and P, in bakeries, in textile factories and at the Electrolux factory. Some ventured beyond the west side, boarding the subway to speed them to other jobs in the city of 7 million people. My grandfather was one of them. He was so good at his trade that he once painted ceilings at the Statue of Liberty for two solid years.
The West-Side tenements stood four stories tall, and had as many as 10 families per building. Rooms were arranged in so-called railroad style. When entering the Watson flat, a visitor first came upon the parlor, then the dining room, and then the kitchen, with its coal stove. After the kitchen came another family room, followed by bedrooms, one after the other.
“It was a lower middle class neighborhood,” said Dorothy Checchia, my dad’s younger sister. “People went to work. They got along. It was quiet, not like the noisy New York of today.”
The Stock Market crash in 1929 changed that. People in the inner city became so poor by the mid-1930s they couldn’t afford food, let alone have their house painted. The Watsons moved in with a family friend on a Lancaster, Pa., farm for a year.
They returned to West 47th Street in 1937. Dad, then 16, resumed his life as a street kid. He dropped out of high school and picked up odd jobs. By day, he played stickball on the narrow, canyon-like streets. A sewer cover was home plate. Parked cars represented first and third base. A distant sewer cover served as second base. The bat: an old broom handle. The ball: rolled up cloth.
By night, dad, Vinny (his closest sibling) and others begged for nickels and dimes in the theater district two blocks away. Occasionally, they earned enough to go to the circus or see the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden or venture to the Bronx to see the New York Yankees, with an aging Babe Ruth and the great Lou Gehrig, at cavernous Yankee Stadium. The reliable, get-it-done Gehrig, who later set baseball’s record for consecutive games played, was his idol.
But dad and Vinny may have earned their best money watching cars.
“We’d ask people near the shows if we could watch their cars for them. They’d ask what that meant. I’d tell them that for a dollar I would watch and make sure no one vandalized their car,” dad later recalled.
With a group of friends lurking nearby, dad built quite a business on a busy Broadway night.
City-life recreation meant playing alongside “Kikes and Ginnies and Niggers and Spics and Wops,” dad said. “Everyone had a nickname – and it wasn’t mean-spirited. We all were part of one ethnic group or another. In New York, people called you by your race, not your name.”
Dad was called “Limey,” a term describing Englishmen.
When not playing stickball, dad often flew kites from atop tenement buildings, scampering from building to building in fighting a stiff breeze from the Hudson River.
Vinny grew apart from dad and the rest of the family in the late 1930s. “He got involved in a bad crowd,” his brother John said. “There were some robberies, petty things. Bad people and guns.” When Vinny couldn’t find work, his father prompted him to join the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of President Roosevelt’s make-work programs, in Ohio He later returned to New York City, was married twice in rapid succession, and took up drinking, a habit that destroyed three marriages and would later kill him.
Dad stayed clear of Vinny — and the drinking. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, dad gave up his liquor-store job and enlisted. So, did brothers Vinny, George and John. They all served in World War II, with George and John fighting in the Pacific, and Vinny and dad in Italy. The war had pulled them apart.
They all made it home unscathed, but none of the four ever talked much about their fighting experiences. My aunt once joked about the Watson men and their silence.
OFF TO NEW ENGLAND
With the war over, dad watched his brothers and sister settle in carbon-copy, Leavitt homes in the potato fields near Hicksville and Bethpage on Long Island. He eschewed his tenement home for a better life, much like his own father had left his native England. He traveled to rural New Hampshire and ended up in the arms of his future wife, farm girl Claire St. Cyr, with whom he had shared love letters since the summer of 1942.
Charlie and Claire met through photographs at the urging of my Uncle Boze, her brother, who served with dad in the 5th Army. She sent him provocative black-and-white photos – many taken while she was wearing a skimpy bathing suit on the sands of Hampton Beach in New Hampshire. Dad sent soldierly portraits in return. He resembled Ralph Fiennes in “The English Patient,” I later thought.
He stood only 5-foot-7 and weighed a wiry 140 pounds as a soldier. There was a certain swagger about him. I’ve looked over and over at the black and white photo that he sent mom in 1945. He is 23 years old, standing next to the barracks — a dusty, dirty place. The sleeves of his khaki shirt are rolled up to the elbow, with the thumb of his left hand tucked under his belt. He is holding a cigarette between his fingers.
In his right hand is the precious cigarette pack, which he holds dear much like a 23-year-old today would clutch an iPod. And he has that ever-present smile I grew to love.
Charlie and Claire were smitten with each other but would not talk nor meet in person until the summer of 1945. They married in April 1946, right after dad’s discharge.
The St. Cyrs and the Watsons could not have been more different. Mom’s father, Adelard, spoke mostly French and farmed more than 5,000 acres in the New Hampshire countryside about 80 miles northeast of Boston. He was a seventh-generation descendent of Pierre Deschaies dit Saint-Cyr, a 17-year-old from Normandy who worked on a transport ship for passage to Montreal in 1665.
Like his father, Adelard farmed during the spring, summer and fall near Trois Rivieres, Quebec, and went south to log in the Maine and New Hampshire woods in winter. In 1916, he purchased the New Hampshire farm. He and wife Mary, another French-Canadian who worked in the textile mills, grew fruits and vegetables and raised dairy cows.
Adelard was one of the last St. Cyr farmers, watching his holdings become turnpikes and suburban subdivisions before he died at 87 in 1976. My dad, the city kid, had no idea of what to do with a hoe and settled with my mom in a pleasant white Cape right across the street from what used to be the barn.
While many veterans used the G.I. Bill for college, dad used his to get the high school diploma he passed up to deliver whiskey. He learned carpentry and fine woodworking, but they remained hobbies that faded with his youth.
Taking a menial job at the A and P supermarket, he started his life far behind and was determined to catch up, even if it had to be done through his twin sons, Warren and Wayne, born under emergency lights during a hurricane in Dover, N.H., in November 1950.
Wayne, my only sibling, and I followed dad’s interests, but he pushed us away from his job as a retail clerk. Instead, Charlie wanted us to go to college, something he could only dream about while he stood guard over the vegetables.
THE POWER OF SPORTS
Sports was the glue in our family.
We followed Charlie and Claire to the bowling alley and became pretty good bowlers in our own right. One of my fondest memories was competing alongside my father in national tournaments in the early 1970s, where I made pocket money from men twice my age, helping to pay for my expenses at the University of New Hampshire. I averaged 200 for an entire season, and toyed with the idea of going pro. Dad quickly dissuaded me from that.
Mom was the city-champion bowler for a number of years running and a fine basketball player in high school. She became Dover’s first policewoman.
Charlie also loved baseball. Wayne and I followed him to the diamond as journeymen, winning the local little league championship three years in a row. Dad encouraged us to work hard in sports too – and to win.
Weiss Lawrence Shoe Co., our team, overwhelmed the opposition much like my dad’s beloved New York Yankees ran over the rest of the American League. I started as a first baseman, but was pressed into becoming a catcher when I was 10 when the son of our coach, tobacco-chewing Al Jousset Sr., was hospitalized with appendicitis in May, just before the season started.
“Warren, come over here to home plate” said Big Al, clutching a wad of Beech Nut Chewing Tobacco, then putting the pouch into his back pocket. “Put on the gear.” He handed me the shin guards. I know where those go, I thought. He handed me the chest protector. I know how to put that on, I thought. He handed me the face mask. Got it covered.
Then Big Al handed me the protective catcher’s cup. “Go in the dugout and put that on,” he said. I knew where it was supposed to go. but heck, I was only 10 and still wearing boxer shorts.
I did my best, putting the cup down my shorts and walking carefully back to home plate. Thank heavens this was just a practice.
Dad laughed for years when he remembered that night. I would crouch down, then stand to throw the ball back to the pitcher. The cup would fall down my pant leg. I’d pick it up, run over to the dugout and put the cup back in. Over and over and over.
Dad bought me an athletic supporter on the way home.
I became a good catcher and later started for two years for the varsity at St. Thomas Aquinas High School. Success was elusive, however. My team lost 28 consecutive games over three seasons. My first victory came late in my senior year.
Baseball was always touchy subject in our household, with dad the Yankee fan, and mom thirsting for a long-overdue Red Sox championship. Wayne and I had to be tactful, but loved to sneak across the street to my grandmother’s to listen to the Red Sox amid the crackling static on her 4-foot tall Philco radio. She loved Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter.
Dad also loved to watch stock cars race at the old Dover Speedway, a mile from our home. We followed him to the spectator bleachers, beginning at the age of 7.
On humid Friday nights, we often piled into the old beach wagon and watched old jalopies race around the tiny 1/5-mile track. I can still hear the throaty roar of the V-8 engines at the track.
Getting there was almost as much fun. Each week, Wayne and I sat on the edge of our concrete, front steps under rustling, 100-foot pines, old binoculars in hand, peering a half-mile across the field at the main road, the road to the speedway.
“There goes Silva,” I said, jumping up, as we watched the pickup truck hauling the jet-black, “0” stock car of our favorite driver, Ollie Silva, from faraway Haverhill, Mass. He had just come off the Spaulding Turnpike en route to the races. Dad appeared at the screen door. unconvinced. “That makes 12 good cars.” I showed him my list, telling him that the cars we observed so far would make for a fine field.
He pulled at the Pall Mall that was always between his fingers, much like those days in Italy during the war. “Not enough yet, boys. A couple more. Keep watching,” he said, going back to his television.
Wayne and I had to be good salesmen. Dad had to be assured there would be good competition before we went to the track. Admission was $1.50 each. Throw in some steamed hot dogs and Nu-Grape sodas – and a Narragansett or two for dad. That would come to $10, a lot for a grocery clerk.
But he rarely said no.
These men racing the old jalopies were colorful men like dad – even if the old scrapbooks remember them in black-and-white.
They had vivid nicknames. There was Red Barbeau, who was known as Henri to his French- Canadian following. And all the other Reds – Red Cummings, Red Hill, Red Bolduc, Red Foote, and Red Castor, who drove the silver No. 191 Ford, dad’s favorite. There was Whitey Hoyt and Hurry-up Hop Harrington and ex-con Carl Tiberio and Cannonball Jim Landry, who ran a junk yard in nearby Gonic. There was Smokey Boutwell, whose real name was Nathan. No one went by Nathan in those days.
These racing men were dad’s kind of people, working in dingy auto garages, factories and mills, and at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, fixing nuclear submarines. They worked long hours and rushed home on Friday nights to get to Dover Speedway. There, rotting, harness-horse barns greeted the thundering herds of moms and dads dragging their kids to get a fanny-ful of wooden splinters before the first green flag dropped. Other boys from Dover and nearby Somersworth shimmied up the tall trees just outside the speedway grounds to steal a glimpse.
This was not Indianapolis. Country songs played on a tinny PA system. Folks went to the bathroom in old outhouses just off the first turn. One night, a driver slammed into the men’s facility, destroying it. One hell of a mess. Caused quite a problem for the beer-drinkers.
Not all the drivers had such good aim. The early races of the evening involved novice drivers in a division called the Bombers. They were late dubbed the “pleasure cars” by announcer Charlie Crocco, who doubled as Dover’s city clerk. We welcomed Crocco’s booming voice each week, particularly after enduring the scratchy music. “They’re off,” was his classic line at the start of each race.
The pleasure cars seemed to go in slow motion and were always piling into the 5-foot-tall mounds of gravel that protected the 10 light poles that circled the inside of the track.
My cousin, John Dodge, a garage mechanic who always had a joke and a pot belly, drove a bomber for a while. It was not his calling and everyone in the St. Cyr/ Watson family felt better when my worried Aunt Irene and Cousin Louise talked him back into the grandstands.
He smiled the whole time. They didn’t.
THE FRENCH RITUALS
We always saw Cousin John on Christmas Eve, when he slugged beers and told off-color jokes with dad at the traditional French-Canadian celebration at the St. Cyr house. There, we’d open all our presents, from mom and dad, from our grandparents, and from our aunts and uncles, who all lived in the same neighborhood. We even opened those marked “From Santa Claus” even though good old St. Nick didn’t set off from the North Pole for several more hours. We were on some special Christmas advance route, dad said.
Like most women in French-Canadian households, my grandmother, known as Memere (My Mother) was a strong influence over both mom and dad, who had tried to whisk mom off to New York after they married. Memere coaxed them back.
When dad’s own mother died of a stroke in 1949, Memere embraced my father as a son. She knit him sweaters so he wouldn’t get chilled while taking in the produce on February mornings. She hung his laundry on the old clothesline. She made pots of chicken fricassee, initially impressing him with the swiftness in which she could wring the neck of the young birds that scampered beneath her feet in the backyard.
In return, he helped her perfect her English. My grandparents talked French to themselves and to my mom, who was bilingual. They avoided French around my dad, brother and me. “English, Adelard, English,” my grandmother would say. Later, they talked broken French and mostly English.
Memere died in 1968, a year after the Sox had made a decent run at the World Series, succumbing to Bob Gibson and St. Louis in the seventh game. As she died, the Sox were only four games out of first place – but fading fast.
Dad never learned French, but did take on an important tradition when my mom asked to be called Memere when my older son was born a few years later. Two Memeres would have smiled together as the New Yorker became ever more the New Englander.
Dad’s influence on the St. Cyr family hastened the erosion to the French-Canadian ties. While my mother and her two brothers had attended French parochial school in Dover, Wayne and I were sent off to the English parochial school and then public university.
Wayne and I are fraternal twins. We look like brothers, and have that same, slow, loping gait that I see from behind when I watch my two sons, Jamie, 21, and Sam, 16. Except for dad’s bow legs.
Wayne is shorter than me by about four inches. Thank god. If he were my height, that iron that his bickering ex-wife Sandy once threw at his head 30 years ago – narrowly missing high — would have caught him square in the kisser. Dad never heard that story.
We all stayed close as Wayne and I became men. One of our mid-winter rituals from the 1970s on was to gather with mom and dad in Dover and watch NASCAR’s Daytona 500 live on CBS on a February Sunday. My wife, Terri, and I even came back once or twice for a winter holiday during our balmy, five-year pit stop in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Dad had long since stopped going to auto races, suffering for the last years of his life from smoking-related problems. But he loved to listen to Ken Squier, the New Englander who called the race for CBS, and admire Bill Elliott, a Georgia driver who was swift and sure in his red, Coors Ford, number 9. We talked about what it must feel like to go 225 mph, like Elliott.
REDISCOVERING HIS FAMILY
Dad retired from the A and P in 1983 and made a point of reconnecting with his brothers and sisters. I admired him all the more as he swallowed his pride and resolved a long-standing dispute with brother John over a $200 personal loan. The disagreement had left them estranged and hardly talking for 20 years, despite the fact they lived but a mile apart.
Visits to Long Island became more frequent, and all the siblings made more frequent trips together in the late 1980s and early 1990s to the Atlantic City resort. There, they laughed and played together like they had done just before World War II on the white sands of Coney, south of New York City.
Beach balls were replaced by the oranges, lemons and cherries of the ringing slot machines at the new casinos.
Dad and his brother George bonded as never before. George headed the carpentry shop at the CBS Television Network in Manhattan and hired dad as a “day laborer” for junkets to the Super Bowl and the national political conventions in the 1980s and early 1990s. Dad was in charge of getting coffee and donuts but still pulled down the standard union wage.
In dad’s later years, New York itself became a memory.
During that never-to-be-forgotten day in March now 10 years ago, dad also told me the story of his older brother Vinny, who was his childhood idol but had become a drinker and the family outcast. After fighting in Italy with dad, Vinny retreated into Manhattan. A failed marriage later, he kicked around from apartment to apartment, hotel to hotel, and finally, flop house to flop house. Vinny and dad had become disconnected, separated by 300 miles of Interstate 95.
I met Vinny twice — once in 1965, and a year earlier in the same 47th Street neighborhood where the Watsons grew up. My Uncle George ran a stage-lighting company only doors down from PS 51, and Vinny often came by to borrow money. Right there, amid the brownstones of their youth.
I’ll never forget the 1964 encounter, and I am embarrassed that I was repulsed. I was anxious to get to the New York World’s Fair, and I remember him smiling, hugging us. He smelled like the drunk he had become. His clothes were filthy, his hands encrusted with dirt and grime.
In 1968, dad simply told us that Vinny had died. I don’t ever remember asking how and why.
Twenty-seven years later, I asked.
Vinny’s body was found by the door inside his hotel room. He had been killed in a fire. He had been smoking in bed and fallen asleep. Probably passed out from drink, I thought, but didn’t ask.
Vinny had crawled across the burning, smoking room, clawing at the door before dying of a heart attack.
No one in the Watson family had been in contact with Vinny nor his ex-wife when this happened. They heard about his death, but weeks later. They never knew about the funeral services. They never knew he was buried with military honors in a cemetery only 10 miles away in Brooklyn.
Dad fought emphysema for nine years, and we all watched him slow down. At 115 pounds, he coughed and wheezed to the end.
Dad’s death was slow and painful on Pearl Harbor Day in 1997. He had been forced to lug around an oxygen bottle to jam more air into his tattered lungs. He took steroids to strengthen his breathing. That made his bones brittle and led to his death.
On a late October visit to his doctor’s office, he slipped on the curb and broke his hip. Breathing complications, pneumonia, and a six-week slide took him in and out of intensive care at the same hospital at which he watched the birth of his sons. He gasped for breath till the end, craving the morphine drip that made it tolerable.
Living 100 miles away near Augusta, Maine, at the time, I had been at dad’s bedside for days on end. But I missed his passing by about 100 minutes, driving up the Maine Turnpike to go home to work the following day, Monday. I was already home when dad died. I decided to drive back in the morning.
So, I saw my dad, drained of life, the following morning in the refrigerator room of Dover’s Tasker and Chesley funeral home. I kissed him on his forehead, which was as cold as the granite slab that had been his last bed. I couldn’t help but noticing his hair, jet black as ever, against his pasty skin. The mortician had yet to apply makeup and those rose-red cheeks to this handsome man who never had a gray hair in his 76 years.
Dad was buried there in Dover, in the French cemetery some 800 yards from his adopted Dover home.
My dad’s remaining two brothers and sister had been at his bedside in his adopted home in New Hampshire when he died that December in 1997. After the funeral, they told funny and sad family stories about growing up in the big city, about life, about death — and about the war no one ever talked about.