Of phantom pain and cries in the night
May 28, 2007
As children, Inge and I heard our fathers cry out in the night, sometimes, on those occasions when the phantom pains took over.
Then the family doctor — hers and ours — would be summoned to our houses, each arriving with a black bag and needles filled with painkiller.
The doctor would inject a dose into my father's stump — Inge recalls those shots into her own father's stump, too — and the pain in the toe or the knee that was no longer there would subside for a time.
The doctors would always come, no matter the hour. Out of respect. These two men — Inge's father and mine — lost their legs in World War II. The right leg, both of them. Artillery shrapnel, both of them.
And they'd both had hope for a time. My father thought the doctors might save it. He was undergoing skin grafts when infection set in. Then they cut it above the knee.
Inge's father had his cut below the knee in the field hospital. He thought he'd still have that important knee joint, but infection set in. Then they cut it above the knee.
Both men learned to cope when they returned home wearing government-issue wooden legs. They were heavy, those legs. The two men clumped and thumped as they hauled them through life.
Their stumps sometimes developed sores and rashes. And sometimes, in the night, there were the phantom pains.
Inge was Herbert Eisenmann's oldest daughter. Oldest of three, with a brother and sister to follow. I was Hank Werkman's oldest, also with a sister and a brother who came after me.
As children, neither Inge nor I could imagine a man with two legs.
My father's leg was made of wood from a willow tree, and it was held on by a wide belt around the waist, attached to a metal hinge. So was Herbert's although, in later years, he was issued a plastic leg that attached to his short stump by means of suction.
During the years after the war, both men developed a love for swimming, perhaps because it was the one sport their wooden legs didn't interfere with. I recall my father walking into the ocean on crutches, his stump dangling down toward the shifting sand as he waded in deeper and deeper. At some point, when he judged an oncoming wave to be the right one, he'd hand off his crutches to my mother or one of us kids, then he'd dive headlong through the cresting water.
Floating on his back out there beyond the breakers, looking skyward, I suppose he could imagine a time when he dribbled a basketball down the court, spinning his body, leaping toward the basket, an effortless dance.
Inge, too, recalls her father walking into the breakers, in his case on the plastic leg with a cane to steady him. And at just the right moment, he'd release the suction and take off the leg, handing it to Inge or her mother even as he dove head first into the water. She can only guess that, as he floated in freedom on the salt water, his thoughts might have wandered to the days when he could ski with grace down the side of a mountain.
Years later in 1991, when Herbert died of stomach cancer at the age of 67, the government requested the return of his prosthetic legs. They were government property, after all, issued to a soldier wounded in combat. He was buried with only his own flesh-and-blood leg, and Inge often worried that he needed the artificial one, even in death.
My mother has a vague recollection that she, too, was supposed to have turned in my father's wooden leg when he died of a blown aneurysm in 1979 at the age of 59. She never did, though.
He was buried wearing that chunk of wood. I often hoped he didn't need it.
But as young men going off to war — teenagers, both of them — Inge's father and my own most likely never pondered whether or not they'd eventually be buried with wooden legs. They proudly put on their new boots and uniforms, they loaded their guns and their knapsacks, and they prepared for the coming adventure. They each stashed a deck of cards in among their spare socks to help the time pass in the night.
They carried those cards through their separate wars, into their hospital wards and on into adulthood. No doubt, they would have enjoyed a game with one another.
But that was never to be.
They played different card games. My father favored cribbage and poker, Inge's liked a game called skat.
And they swam in different oceans. My father tossed his crutches to us at the edge of the Atlantic, where we'd go for vacation from our home in the Hudson Valley. Inge's father swam in the Mediterranean, where his family would go for holidays from their home in Bavaria.
And of course they spoke different languages. My father knew no German.
Inge Grafe-Kieklak is the only one of her family who eventually moved to America. She lives in Jeffersonville now, where she recalls with a head shake the terrible pain her father suffered after the war.
My own father lost a leg, but he never felt his sacrifice was in vain. His was a just war. And his country won it.
Inge's father lost a leg, and his country lost the war — all for a leader he eventually came to understand was morally bankrupt, one who had started an unjust war with neither the army nor the equipment to win it.
And for that, her father's cries in the night went far deeper than the phantom pains.
Beth's column appears on Monday. firstname.lastname@example.org