Jeffrey L. Bromberger, Bearer of Bad News
16 August 2021
The second installment in the series of articles of how I became the man I am.
I never really got to know my maternal grandfather as an adult. Call it a mixture of bad luck, external forces, juvenile stubbornness and a handful of other things. Even though he lived to be 73, falling to cancer at the end of a long struggle, the only real memories I have of him are from when I was a child. And it is one of these memories that I relate to you now.
Born in 1922, he was relatively young when the Great Depression hit. But that also meant that he was the perfect age to serve in World War II, just as the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He was shipped off to the West Coast for training before deployment. The photo above was taken in May of 1943, when he was stationed at California’s March Air Field – he was in the Army Air Force. He had a girlfriend back home, of course, and kept in touch with her regularly. The stories show that he was a loud, boisterous, fast to anger sort of guy. Nothing unusual for somebody his age and from his life. I’d wager that his time in Basic Training only toughened him up, getting him ready for the ugliness that was the upcoming war in Europe.
He was injured in Basic Training and spent several months in a military hospital. He managed to overcome what had laid him out, was discharged and sent home without making it to actual battle. While this probably saved his life, I have to wonder if he was more than a little disappointed in the way things turned out here.
He made it back to New York City and married his girlfriend. Together, they raised three kids, the eldest was my mother.
I am told that there is this old saying in the military – if you’re going through hell, just keep going and don’t stop.
Like many people of that generation, both of my grandparents were smokers. I have to admit that I cannot recall every seeing my grandfather smoke, but I do still have very early memories of my grandmother with her cigarettes and their smell.
In 1972, the smoking caught up with her. She had emphysema and COPD, and a weak heart as well. She passed away just about 90 or so days before her 48th birthday. I was only 4 years old, but that’s not really relevant here (except for the fact that this is when my personal memories sort of become real and not hazy). My grandfather was widowed just four days before his 50th birthday. What was he supposed to do? What would you do?
There was no real choice. He had to pick himself up and keep going. He had two kids at home still (only my mother was married and on her own) and the youngest wasn’t even sixteen yet. I am told that there is this old saying in the military – if you’re going through hell, just keep going and don’t stop. Well, he didn’t stop. Besides dealing with his own grief, there were three kids-worth of sorrow to also handle. He did the proverbial “Man Up” and carried the weight. But this story doesn’t end there….
It was several years later when the decision was made to give up the old apartment. My mother, of course, was living in the place I called home, and my uncle had been married and was living with his wife. My grandfather had found a new female companion and was on the road towards re-marriage. Which meant that my young aunt was living in a museum/shrine to my grandmother (with some of my grandfather’s possessions still there, too). That wasn’t emotionally healthy, if you know what I mean.
Somehow, I was there one day with my aunt and grandfather as they were sorting through the contents of closets. I was probably eight years old at the time, so I was not being very helpful – probably just staying out of the way. Most of the emotionally charged items were already divvied up and they were going through the left-overs. Out of one hallway closet, my grandfather pulled out his old, wool Army uniform. I remember how scratchy it was and how dark green it seemed – dark like a pine tree needle. There was a musty scent to it, very much like when I open an old ammo can of 30-06 ball ammo these days. I can’t recall if any words were exchanged between him and my aunt, but the next thing I know, the uniform jacket is on the floor and he hands me a kitchen knife to remove the buttons and the patch. He clearly remember that didn’t look altogether happy about this, but I was way too young to understand why. He was letting go of something that reminded him of his youth, before he got hurt, before he lost the love of his life. I guess that there was no place for this memento in his future. With his help, I had my new treasures to play with. I stashed them in a white plastic L’eggs pantyhose container that was laying around in a trash pile. Today, we’re going on forty five-plus years, and I still have it all with me, plastic egg and all.
It is this “keep going, even though it looks like the world is plotting against you” style that I deeply admire about him. This so-called intestinal fortitude. The ability to keep your head when, as Kipling said, all those around you are losing theirs.
Joe, I never got to know you the way I wish I had. This still bothers me, especially as the days of my my life seem to get more difficult. I raise a toast in your honor – to the man who showed me that there’s always tomorrow, even if your world ended today.