EVANS CITY, Pennsylvania — When my grandpa was in the Army during World War II, he and a couple buddies drunkenly took a military Jeep without permission. By “took without permission” I mean “stole.”
They were in Heidelberg, Germany, at the time, and my grandpa (nickname: Speed) wanted to show his friends a fantastic hilltop view he’d discovered a few days earlier. He was only 19 or 20 years old, young enough to ignore any possible repercussions.
Gramps and his Army buddies never reached that beautiful view. During their drive up the mountain, the Jeep ran over a rock, causing the driver to lose control. Down the hill it tumbled, with gramps and his friends being tossed around inside the cabin like shoes in a dryer. Speed was ejected through the canvas roof. His bony body slammed into the base of a tree.
When the chaos subsided, his jaw was broken in three places. His humerus was protruding from his right arm and his left arm was shredded. A German civilian who happened to be walking by bounded down the mountain and patched up Speed until the medics arrived. He remained in the hospital for about four months, and after that, he had to relearn how to walk and talk.
I realize this is not a typical rah rah, pro-America war story. This is not a tale of valor or honor or duty. But perhaps it’s just as valuable as those glorified retellings, because it’s real, it’s raw, it’s human. Not every soldier in World War II won a Purple Heart or a Medal of Honor or stormed the beaches at Normandy. Many of them were just kids who made youthful mistakes while fighting in the most expansive and deadly military conflict in human history. Who can blame those boys for getting drunk and doing stupid stuff? The world was in ruins, after all. Tomorrow was not guaranteed.
This Jeep wreck story is Speed’s bread and butter. I’ve heard him tell it, in varying degrees of detail, numerous times. Recently, though, he recounted the full thing, from beginning to end, for the official record. We were sitting at my aunt’s kitchen table in the small town of Evans City, Pennsylvania, about 40 minutes outside Pittsburgh, with nothing between us but a voice recorder and nearly 100 years of history.
“I realize this is not a typical rah rah, pro-America war story. This is not a tale of valor or honor or duty. But perhaps it’s just as valuable as those glorified retellings, because it’s real, it’s raw, it’s human. “
Speed is 95 years old. The house we were sitting in is a mere stone’s throw away from his home, which he built in the late 1940s using scrap wood from an old barn. His dad helped piece the place together. The two of them had no building experience, yet they figured it out. Seventy years later, the thing is still standing strong. It’s a small, sturdy white building just outside of town.
As we sat at the table, Speed began telling me his life story, in full, for the record. I’m helping him write his biography, which will be self-published as the aptly-titled “Speed’s Stories.” It will be distributed among family members as the official document of Harold William Schoeffel’s existence.
It won’t contain everything Speed has done, of course. It couldn’t possibly do that. But it will hit the high notes: growing up during the Great Depression, fighting (and goofing off) in World War II, marrying Florence (Flo for short), working at Callery Chemical for 33 years, buying a vacation spot on Lake Erie and, of course, raising two kids, one of whom eventually raised me.
There are no great feats of daring in his narrative. But there are small moments of character, of hilarity, of poignancy.
He bought both of his kids ponies because he always wanted one as a child. Growing up, he couldn’t have one because it was the Great Depression. His family didn’t raise animals that didn’t serve a practical purpose.
“He bought both of his kids ponies because he always wanted one as a child. Growing up, he couldn’t have one because it was the Great Depression. His family wouldn’t raise animals that didn’t serve a practical purpose.”
Speed also had a bad case of pneumonia when he was quite young —- so severe, in fact, that his fingers were black, and the rest of him was headed that way. A doctor told his mother to prepare him for the undertaker. So she heated cow excrement in bags and placed them on Speed’s chest, hoping to raise his temperature.
“That damn cow shit saved my life,” Speed told me.
My grandma, Flo, died in the early ’90s. I asked Speed if he ever thought about remarrying. He immediately said no, and added this:
“I had too good of one the first time.”
Before agreeing to sit down with me, he told my aunt that he had no idea what he was going to talk about. He didn’t believe his life was interesting enough to warrant a book.
But then I hit play on that old battery-operated Sony recorder, and over the next two days — first in Kitty’s house and then his own — he spilled more than six hours worth of stories. I have no doubt that he has many more floating around in his mind.
What I learned from the experience, as basic as it sounds, is that each of us has something to say. No matter how mundane we believe our lives to be, every person has experienced things that no one else has. Listening, really listening, to my grandpa unfurl story after story helped drive home a point that I’ve believed somewhat half-heartedly for years — that despite outward appearances, each of us possesses an undeniable singularity. Inside of us all is a treasure trove of tales waiting to be told.
As sad as it is to think about, Speed probably won’t be around much longer. He suffers from congestive heart failure which often leaves him winded and tired. He’s lost a lot of weight. In his prime, he was 6’6″, 250 pounds. Now he’s down to 180.
He talks about how he’s ready to meet his maker, but that the Lord just won’t take him. It hurts to hear him say that, but then I put myself in his shoes: when he looks at an old black-and-white photo, he’s the only person left. When he wakes up in the morning, he doesn’t have much to anticipate other than returning to sleep that night, or maybe going dancing if he’s feeling up to it.
Death comes for us all. Sometimes its sneaky, other times we see it coming from a mile away. When it arrives, all that’s left are the memories others carry with them, along with pictures and words. Memories are faulty, of course, and pictures, while useful, can only tell us so much.
When I think of Speed after he’s gone, I’ll think of him as a 6’6″ Casanova in Germany, drinking beer and screwing up. I’ll think of him and his dad building a house from scratch. I’ll think of him raising a family, and spending his weekends lounging around at Lake Erie.
I’ll think of him as an older man, shooting the shit with his buddies at the coffee shop or wooing old women at the local dance hall.
And now that his words will soon be bound within a timeless volume, my kids and their kids, and so on down the line, will also have an opportunity to experience that version of Speed. Warts and all.