Sunday, May 29, 2016

Uncle Eugene

I knew my uncle Eugene Kessler mostly as a distant memory. He was one of my Mom's two older brothers (Donald was the oldest in a brood of five brothers and sisters), and what I remember most about Eugene almost 60 years later was that he was a kind, soft-spoken man, married to a kind, soft-spoken woman, Adelaide. They had two young daughters, Charmayne and Deb, who always made me nervous because girls were a totally different species to me at that age.

It seemed we only got together for holidays or family outings, which was not often. I do have memories of all my aunts and uncles, and their families, trying to cram into Nana and Grandpa Kessler's impossibly undersized home for those rare get-togethers.

Uncle Eugene
As I got older ("older" being a relative term here. I'm talking elementary school age) and developed an interest in history, Mom would tell us the story of Eugene's service in World War II.

It was a "wow" story, the kind if you tell it often enough it turns into family lore. As Mom told it, Eugene enlisted in the Army, despite the fact that he was deaf in one (left?) ear, and that he faked his way through the physical to get in. (Faked? Well, maybe. This is 1944 and frontline manpower is at a premium after three years of horrendous world war. Military doctors might look the other way when an enlistee walks through the door. Deaf in one ear? Never mind. As long as you've got a trigger finger, soldier, step over here.)

As the story goes, Eugene (who ended up in Company C of the 377th regiment of the 95th "Victory" Division in Gen. George Patton's famed Third Army), became either a platoon or company runner, relaying messages between units when radio signals otherwise might be compromised.

 Mom said there was one time when Eugene was running a message between units and he felt a tug on his left pant leg, but thought nothing of it — until he reached into his pocket for his cigarette lighter. Apparently, the pocket had been shot away by a sniper and the lighter, a gift from Adelaide, was gone.

Eugene never heard the shot because it came from his left side.


And for years, that was basically the only thing I knew about Eugene's war service. It seemed like it was enough. I mean, geez, I had an uncle who served in World War II. Wow.

But recently, thanks to Facebook, there's been something of a family renaissance. My youngest brother, Scott, has more or less become the family genealogist and his research about our uncle has been remarkable. Add to that the memories of Eugene's daughters and families, and a new picture comes into focus.

Like the battle for Metz. This was a brutal little slog that not many people know about. D-Day and Omaha Beach, or perhaps the Battle of the Bulge, draw tons of attention. But Metz, located in northeastern France near the frontier with the German border, was a nasty set-piece struggle of house-to-house fighting. It was a style of combat in which the desperate Germans had become deadly proficient, and which the U.S. Army had to learn on the fly.

The newly arrived 95th, in fact, would become known as "The Iron Men Of Metz," so named by the Germans who opposed them.

One day, Company C was in the process of taking Fort Bellecroix, one of the ancient outlying fortifications surrounding Metz, when suddenly, two huge explosions rocked the area. Apparently, the Germans had wired the place for destruction. Casualties were enormous as the company lost 17 men, with 59 wounded.

Eugene somehow survived the blast. His granddaughter, Brandy, wrote on Facebook that she understood that he took cover from the falling rocks and masonry by diving under a nearby vehicle. But he might also have paid a price. Brandy suggests that her grandfather may have suffered from a form of survivor's guilt, since many of his buddies were probably lost or injured in the blasts, and yet he lived. Scott, a nurse by profession, surmises that Eugene may have come home from the war with post traumatic stress disorder, which explains to me why I knew my uncle as a "kind, soft-spoken" man. My God, the horrors he must have seen — and kept to himself.

Until a month ago, I never heard this story before. It's more than family lore now.

It's heroic.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Tyro's Corporal Parnell

Doug Parnell saw things that no farm boy from Tyro should ever expect to see.

He saw villages and towns laid waste. He saw friends die. He saw the unspeakable horror of a Nazi concentration camp. He saw war.

A few days ago, Parnell, at a remarkably spry 94 years old, told an audience of about 50 mesmerized listeners crammed into the West Davidson Public Library of his experience in World War II.

Parnell was a corporal in the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment, which was a unit in the famed 3rd Armored "Spearhead" Division.

Drafted late in 1943 — his two older brothers were already serving in the Pacific theater — Parnell finished his basic training and then embarked for Europe on Christmas Eve in 1944. He was deployed two weeks later with the 36th in early January of 1945, just in time for the final stages of the Battle of the Bulge — to this day the largest battle ever fought by the U.S. Army.

Doug Parnell points out where his unit served during World War II.*
Although the war was winding down, there were still battles to be fought against a dangerous, fanatical and tenacious enemy.

As a corporal, Parnell was essentially a squad leader and spent much of his duty on night patrols.

"I guess I was tenderhearted," said Parnell. "Instead of sending these young kids out, I took it on myself when on patrol to go myself as much as I could.

"I knew they were kids and knew more about it than they did," said Parnell. "I knew I'd taken my chances getting myself killed. I was 22 years old and they were calling me "Dad."

He came close to death a few times.

Parnell relates one story when he came under fire, perhaps from a sniper, while climbing an embankment. He hit the dirt, as trained, and lay there. For three-and-a-half hours. Without moving.

"One of the hardest things to do is to lay still for hours and hours," said Parnell. "It finally got dark and I was able to crawl out of there and get back to my outfit."

He also recalls coming under artillery fire and finding relative safety in a foxhole. When the barrage stopped, he found his uniform was bloodstained with body parts. It wasn't his blood. Another soldier beside him had perished as they ran for cover.

One day, while on patrol, Parnell and his squad came across the edge of a town that had been bombed a couple days previously.

"We came up to an electrified fence," said Parnell. There were six or seven people, almost naked, standing behind the fence. I opened the gate, went in and checked for Germans. I went in and jumped over dead bodies. Some (living) people were laying in the mud, begging me to help them, but I couldn't. I didn't know if they were Jews, or Germans, or just prisoners, or what.

"Later, MPs came up and they were able to help them," said Parnell. "But I don't know whatever happened to those people. We were never schooled what to do with them, so I just turned them out until the MPs came up."

What Parnell and his squad came upon was likely a subcamp of the Dora-Mittlebau concentration complex (a part of Buchenwald) outside of Nordhausen. The camp housed slave labor that was forced primarily to work on the Nazis' V-1 and V-2 rocket programs. The 3rd Armored Division liberated the camp on April 11, 1945, a full month before Germany ultimately surrendered.

Parnell, who now stays busy caning chairs with an artful eye in his garage, said the war changed him. How could it not? Death was everywhere.

"I'll tell you how shocking it was," said Parnell. "The first week after I was home, my daddy died. And it didn't mean any more to me than if a dog was laying there because I'd seen so much killing, so many dead people.

"Me and my daddy was as good of friends as a man and son could be," said Parnell. "He was such a good father.

"(After the war) It took a long time for me to get the feeling that I could help somebody," said Parnell, who "confiscated" a tattered Nazi window banner as a war souvenir. "You felt shy to everybody because you couldn't trust them. You couldn't trust the Germans and you sort of got stuck on it.

"But it finally wore off and I feel like I'm the same old man I used to be. Thank the Lord."


And thank you, Doug Parnell, for your service. Thank you for being there, to see things no man should see.

* Dispatch photo by Donnie Roberts

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Living quarters

It's hard for us to believe, but we've been living in our current house for 13 years.

Even our neighbors are surprised by this. You've been here how long?

It seems like it was just yesterday when we were transporting stuff from our house on the south end of town and hauling it to our present location. It's less than five miles between the two as the blue jay flies.

Maybe it's because we lived on Woodsway Drive for 21 years. It was home. We'd put a lot of work into it, did a lot of repairs and landscaping, and turned it into our own little piece of heaven.

Then, almost by accident and without actively searching for a new place to live, we found our current house. So we traded in a 40-year-old rancher for a nearly 100-year-old cottage.

For some mysterious reason that I can't quite explain, our cottage still feels kind of new to us. This, despite the fact, that we've put a lot of work into it, we've done a lot of repairs and landscaping, and have turned it into our own little piece of heaven.

The cottage does have its appealing quirks: We have an outbuilding, where we can store our lawn and garden things; we have a front-to-back driveway, the only house on the block that can connect the street we live on with the alley behind us; and we have a wonderful rose arbor.

Our roses add a nice welcoming touch to our house.
I'm not sure what kind of roses are blooming on the arbor. They're salmon in color and don't have much of a scent, but there are six or seven blooms on the vine and they're absolutely gorgeous. That's especially true when held in contrast with our Peace Yellow paint scheme.

We've been training this arbor for years, and sometimes it actually listens to us.

We trimmed it back last fall because it was getting a little unruly, but with the mild and moist spring, it's been on something of a growth spurt. The arbor climbs one pillar of our house and is reaching effortlessly toward the pillar on the other side of our front steps. It'll get there soon enough, I suspect.

We love watching the gold finches chow down.
 Kim will occasionally feed it rose food, whatever that is, but mostly I've been throwing banana peels at it. It seems that bananas might be a good source of potassium or whatever it is that roses like and it may be another reason why our arbor appears to be thriving.

We've also tried to turn our backyard into a bird sanctuary with a stand of feeders. I've always been a sucker for birdwatching — a trait inherited from my mom, I think — so one feeder attracts sparrows, hatches and thrashers while the other feeder, filled with thistle, beckons gold finches.

Kim also has a hummingbird feeder hanging from our kitchen window and it's great fun to see those little fellows flitting around. My cat and myself are greatly entertained by these guys.

The finches, I've found, can be very particular. If you let their feeder run out of food, they might disappear for weeks before they return.

Well, when you think about it, Kim and I go to different restaurants all the time.

To be truthful, the cottage actually felt like home the day we moved into it, even though there was a lingering veneer of newness to it all these years.

But it's also home, and home is where the heart is.

Saturday, May 7, 2016


I'm going to take a stab in the dark here and suggest that the above photo, snapped in July 1950, was never intended to be caught on the World Wide Web.

It's a picture of my parents, Charles and Carol, on their wedding day.

They'd just gotten married. Dad is wearing his ring.

They don't look old enough to get married, yet Mom had just turned 22 and Dad had just turned 21. I love this photo — I think they were in the back seat of their 1946 Plymouth — precisely because it's such an intimate moment. I guess it could have been posed, but they look pretty involved with this eyes-shut kiss. I kinda want to shuffle my feet, mumble "Whoa," and look away for a moment.

But I can't.

I am mesmerized. That picture is my future. It is also my past.

And it tells me that this young couple is about to create a family built on a promise of love. I like that. Sixty-five years later, it still gives me a feeling of contentment. And a model to follow in my own married life, even to this moment.

With Mother's Day upon us, this picture gives me pause to reflect. As the youngest of five children herself, Mom was already the recipient of some serious and time-tested child rearing. A legacy of Kessler family values were already instilled in her and were ready to be passed on.

I'm here to say that I think she did that admirably. I learned the difference between right and wrong (I've managed to stay out of jail to this point). I acquired a measure of patience (she served time, after all, as a minister's wife). She gave me a sense of humor that could, at times, be subtle (she did, after all, live with Dad). She loved to read. She loved her pets. She loved music and could sing with a beautifully harmonizing alto voice (I sing with a one-note scale, but I can listen to music with the best of them). She had a talent for painting pictures. She was a great cook. She enjoyed and appreciated her friends.

Interestingly enough, Dad, the minister, had written down something for his wife years ago. It was on one of the blank opening pages of a Ryrie Study Bible, which I assume was a gift to her. All he had written was "Proverbs, 31:10. I have. Thank you. Love, Charlie."

The passage was meant for his wife, about his wife. But the sentiment is also something a child might express for its mother.

And the passage?

"An excellent wife (woman), who can find? For her worth is far above jewels."

Thanks, Mom.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Family tree

The other day I went on Facebook to see what's going on in the world: Underhill Rose, my favorite band, is touring the United Kingdom; one of my friends posted a picture of a cake she baked; another friend posted a picture of a cake he ate.

Big stuff.

Then I scrolled down and saw a fuzzy color picture of me. Actually, it was of me, my brothers and my parents, and in the "What's on your mind?" box, my youngest brother, Scott (the poster), had written "This might be the last photo of all of us together, c.1982."

Long ago and far away...

Because Scott had shared it on my Facebook wall (as well as on our brother David's, who lives in Alaska), the photo was collecting "likes" as fast as the city collects parking tickets.

The photo was snapped by my wife, Kim, in Sister Bay, Wisconsin, where Dad was the pastor of the Moravian church there.

Five years later, he was dead from the prostate cancer that had found its way to his bones. He was only 58. Mom passed away four years after that from breast cancer. That simple family picture is now worth more than gold bars to me.

Anyway, within a half hour of posting the family photo, Scott went on a genealogy jag, posting picture after picture of not only the Wehrles, but of the Kesslers, too. The Kesslers were my mom's side of the family, and suddenly, aunts, uncles and cousins were showing up on Facebook as fast as Scott could post them.

And I mean real cousins, not just pictures. Cousins Deb and Char started leaving comments under the pictures, and so were their children. Scott, David and myself responded to questions with questions of our own.

Uncle Eugene, holding Scott, with Deb and Char. Dave is too cool to touch.
Suddenly, we were having a cyberspace reunion. Oooing and ahhing all over the place. The conversation went on all morning, and into the next day. All that was missing were the hot dogs and beer.

It's kind of amusing to think I haven't touched base with Deb and Char in decades — probably not since we were kids ourselves — and now suddenly we were having extended and informative Facebook conversations.

I always thought Char, incidentally, had an interesting name: Charmayne (Shar-maine). It would be the best name in the family tree, if not for her mother, Adelaide.

 At any rate, there is some discussion about having a what's-left-of-the-family reunion. That would be cool. We think it should be in Bethlehem, PA., where both the Wehrles and the Kesslers originally germinated (or, if your prefer, German-ated, what with last names like those).

It's been a tasty couple of days. It's even been better than cake.