I know that all of you are expecting some kind of rant from me but no. The Fury that I refer to in this post is the upcoming movie, Fury starring Brad Pitt. I really want to see this movie because during World War II my granddaddy, Milton "Jerry" Ontell served in the tanks.
He was born in 1919 in Newark, New Jersey to immigrant parents. By the time of his Bar Mitzvah, his mother was ill and confined to a wheelchair and his parents were divorced. In a sense, he ran free around the streets of Newark with his cousin, my uncle Al Walsky. Just like the kids in "Once Upon a Time in America" (yes, I get my history from the movies, you have a problem with that?) who ran dice and mixed with gangsters. He even took up boxing under an assumed name - Jerry Brown. An assumed name so the aunts whom he lived with wouldn't know what he was up to. I have no idea how many years he was in school but I do know he never finished high school if even middle school. The first time they sent him to school, the teacher sent him home and told him to come back when he could speak English. His mother tongue was Yiddish.
For some reason that I never found out, my grandfather loved horses. Maybe it was what horses represented, freedom, countryside, unconditional love, something completely out of his sphere. When the war started he of course, along with my Uncle Al and their stereotypical like in the movies Italian friend, Tony, joined up. My grandfather joined the calvary because he wanted to be with the horses. What he didn't know was that the horses from the cavalry had turned into tanks. According to Wikipedia, horses were still used in WWII but the cavalry became mechanized early on. He was sent to bucolic Fort Knox in Kentucky. It must have been like Dorothy landing in Oz (I love movies, I can't help it), completely foreign right down to the southern hicks.
Before he was shipped out to the European Theater, on a St. Patricks Day in March of 1942, the USO held a dance in Louisville for the soldiers. Among the young women (and I do mean young), was a 15 year old girl named Emma LaVerne Winkles. Have to go on a tangent here and explain to you that my grandmother, whom we call Mimi and is still going at 87, hates her name. When we were younger and we would call her Emma (not sure how we found out that was her name because everyone else called her LaVerne), she would threaten to write us out of the will. I think its a beautiful name and for a long time I even wore a perfume named Emma from Laura Ashley (am I dating myself?)
LaVerne was born in 1926 in Louisville, Kentucky. Her parents were also divorced and she essentially had no relationship with her father although she has told us that he owned a vinegar factory. She spent a lot of time at her Grandmother's house (who I also knew and lived to a very ripe old age) where her Aunt Bernice also lived. I think Mimi would argue that her grandmother really raised her while her mother was trying to make her way in a world that wasn't exactly overly friendly to divorced single mothers.
On the ceiling of the gym where the St. Patrick's day dance was there were shamrocks hanging with the names of the young women of the dance. Back down on the floor, there were also shamrocks with their names in a bowl where the men would choose a name who would then become their dance partner. Apparently, my grandfather, who was for certain impulsive, took the shamrock from the ceiling with Laverne Winkles written on it make sure that she became his dance partner.
After that, it was a whirlwind 2 - 3 week courtship. He showed up the their first date - stone cold drunk. They must have had better dates because on April 3, they were married. There was no wedding night since my grandfather returned to Ft. Knox and was shipped off either the same day or the next one. Somewhere along the way, my grandmother must have also revealed to my grandaddy that she wasn't 18 years old. In fact, she was only 15. In the end, it didn't really matter.
He went to war, first to Ireland where he complained that all they had to eat was mutton and then to North Africa to fight against Rommel. Mimi meanwhile, planted a victory garden, went to school and worked at the Woolworth lunch counter. They wrote steamy letters back and forth that used the word "swell" alot. Eventually, one of the girls in Mimi's all girls high school (the same school that my mother, me and both of my siblings would graduate from) told the principal that Mimi was married. They kicked her out of school so she wouldn't be a bad influence on the other girls, teaching them all about sex even though she still hadn't had a wedding night.
Some time in early 1943 or late 1942, a telegram was received reporting that Milton Ontell was missing in action. LaVerne thought it was important to go and visit my grandfather's aunts in Newark. Here she was, a shiksa from Kentucky, about to travel a long way from home for the first time in her life to visit Yiddish speaking aunts who most likely didn't even know a Christian. In fact, one time when my grandfather had holy water sprinkled on him by accident, he was taken home and scrubbed.
Gathering up her chutzpah, she went. I don't know most of the details of this visit until this happened:
My great aunt, my grandfathers half sister and only sibling, came running up to the door screaming that Milton was home. Of course Milton is home- they answered. He's got flat feet (or something like that) and never went away, what's all the excitement? Truth was that it wasn't that Milton. It was my grandfather. He didn't know that my grandmother was there, only that he wanted to see his family and when the Italian prisoner ship he had been sent back home on docked in the area, he jumped over the side. He was sickly and thin and had to be hospitalized. He spent the rest of the war teaching sharp shooting at Ft. Knox. He earned an NCO rank and a purple heart.
My mother was born in 1944 and was an only child. Mimi and Grandaddy were married for 42 years and he died way too young at 65. Their life together wasn't easy. Their individual childhoods were rough and lonely. Neither of them even finished high school. They tried the best they could and by the time their 3 grandchildren had arrived, they had both mellowed and thought we we hung the stars and the moon.
Every Friday night, we would eat Shabbat dinner at their house. I had once done a living history project with Mimi and interviewed her about life during WWII. Grandaddy never spoke about it. One Friday night, while we were eating, he began to tell us the story of when his tank blew up. We'd seen the scars on his chest and stomach but never knew more than that. There were 3 of them in the tank, he said. 2 Jews and an anti-Semitic commander. One up in the turret, the other two down in the belly of the tank. There was intense fighting and my grandfather, who I think was the driver, told the captain or whatever to bring down the gunner in the turret. Not long after that, there was an explosion and the gunners head was laying in my grandfather's lap. I'm pretty sure that he was the only who survived that day and also told us that he got out of the tank and went running for shelter saying to himself "this is one Jew Hitler isn't going to get". Obviously, he was wounded and his dog tags lost which is why he had been reported missing in action.
We all sat at the table somewhat stunned. No one had ever heard any of that before.
Which brings me back to the movie Fury. It is the closest I will ever get to understanding what Grandaddy went through in the war. What experiences changed him and the violence that haunted him. Yes, it's only a movie, but for him and thousands more then and too many now, it was also real.