Fate and a Bullet
This war story has two beginnings. The first is an Army base in Wisconsin in the Spring of 1944, where my grandfather at age 33 is crawling through the dirt beneath strands of barbed wire while bullets fly overhead—a "live fire" exercise in basic training. The second is my sophomore English class at North Hunterdon High School in Annandale, New Jersey in 1980, two years after his death, where I am just beginning to grapple with the meaning of his life by reading books and poems.
Let us begin with my portion: I am sitting in class having just listened to the teacher read aloud by Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken.” This is a poem about the big choices we make and living with the consequences of them. There is one road that forks into two, one more traveled than the other; the poem’s narrator has taken the road less traveled and projects himself into a future in which he will look back and reflect on his choice. Some of my fellow students are eager to explain that the poet believes the road less traveled is the better one, but our teacher, Mr. Parent, urges us to read it again more carefully. The narrator, he says, believes that both paths are roughly equal and wonders wistfully what it would have been like to take the wider, more well-trodden one.
Many years later, when I am the teacher standing before my sophomore English class, it occurs to me that this is the perfect poem for sixteen-year-old high school students living in a relatively affluent society because, from their vantage point, life appears to stretch out ahead of them in a series of pristine, unchosen paths. When you are an American teenager, choice is the fuel of life, death is mostly an abstraction, and fate is anathema. American children are taught to reject fate. Anything is possible. You can be anything. These are the slogans we teach the young.
Maybe for this reason I was incapable of imagining myself as having a fate at age sixteen. The only death I had experienced was my grandfather’s. His was a first complete life—beginning, middle, and end—to be lived in close proximity to my own, and I was just beginning to understand the enormity of it. I found myself projecting him into Frost's poem and wondering, had he taken the road less traveled in his life? He was, after all, an artist who lived, as my mother has said, "with a pencil in his hand." Artists struggle to keep their identities alive and intact in this overly pragmatic, transactional society. Or was his path actually the more well-traveled one? He was an autoworker living in a time when a person could support a family with a factory job, with a wife and two children and a house in the suburbs. Is this not the essence of the road most traveled, the middle-class American dream in the 1950s? What would he say about his own life, looking back on it? I do not know, because he was not forthcoming or reflective in this way when he was alive, at least not to me. Now he was dead, and his fate had been sealed.
My grandfather was still an enigma to me. I had not attended his funeral, never said goodbye in any fashion, so losing him so suddenly had left a hole in my life. I tried to fill this hole by climbing down into it. I projected him into everything. I read a lot, so I would search for him in books. He was lurking in every war movie I saw on television, especially the ones about World War II. I was a dreamy, easily distracted kid, my mind always wandering off, so I would spend hours reconstructing him from my memories and my imagination. What was his life like during the Depression? The war? After the war? And there were the letters, of course, more than 400 of them he wrote home from the war, collected in a box in my closet. I would return to this box often, looking for answers in the 33-year-old version of him I had never known, a homesick soldier writing home to his wife and infant daughter—my mother—from an island on the other side of the world.
Around the same time I read Frost’s poem, I also read Homer’s Iliad for the first time. No teacher had assigned it. I simply picked it up on my own. This beautiful, mysterious book spoke to me as no other had, of spear-wielding warriors and mercurial gods and sacrificial rites for fallen heroes, the slaughter of bulls, and the burning of hecatombs. The book opens on a beachhead near Troy where for nine years the Greek invaders had struggled against plague and despair and homesickness and sudden, untimely violent death. As I read, my mind went immediately to Omaha Beach and Utah Beach and the dozens of beach battles without names in the Pacific War. In 1980, only one war had seared itself into my mind—not Korea or Vietnam, but the war against fascism. I grew up in the era when people would say “The War" and everyone knew instinctively which war it was.
In the Iliad, I encountered a different, less relatable notion of fate, the one that wraps itself around premature death. Fate and death are bound together in the Iliad. In this fictional universe, you could "meet your fate" or be "bound to" it in death. You could threaten to "hand" fate to another by killing him in battle. This fate was "pitiless," "evil," "dark," "deadly," and "accursed." Fate could make the Achaeans settle "towards the nourishing earth." Uncontrollable, unpredictable fate. This is what makes war so terrifying, that some unseen hand is deciding from moment to moment which path the soldier will take, the one that leads forward through life to some moment of retrospection “ages and ages hence” as Frost writes in his poem or the one that leads immediately downward, into the ground.
This divergence is often on my mind when I think about my grandfather and the others who returned from World War II. They built the world we live in, having already been separated out like wheat from chaff to survive and live on after the war ended. It was their families—their bloodlines and their stories—that were allowed to unfold into the future. My grandfather's war story played itself out within a series of these divergences, moments when he might have died but did not, when others went into the ground instead of him. I can cite a handful of these moments from the letters he left and from war stories he told, but I think there were many more that will remain forever invisible to me. The first that I know about occurred even before he finished basic training, in a place called Camp McCoy, Wisconsin.
When my grandfather finished his basic training and left Camp McCoy for the Pacific Theatre on May 14, 1944, there was a lot to fear. D-Day was still a month away, and the future of Europe still hung in the balance. The Allies were making slow, bloody progress up the Italian peninsula. At the end of May, the Marines invaded Biak, an island with an important airbase just north of New Guinea and one degree south of the Equator. My grandfather would end up on Biak eventually, after the fighting there had finished, but he did not know that when he was in basic training. All he knew or cared about was the fact that he would soon be leaving his wife and infant daughter to travel to a war zone on the other side of the world.
My family does not remember much about Camp McCoy, and there are not many details in my grandfather's letters, so I must look to other sources to fill in the gaps. One of these is an Army medic from Ohio named Richard Charles Stanley who, like my grandfather, left a detailed account of his experiences in the 132nd General Hospital. He traveled the same path as my grandfather—from Camp McCoy to San Francisco to Australia to New Guinea to Biak to The Philippines and then back to the U.S. when the war was over. His account is in the form of a video recording made in 2002 by the Veterans History Project. In nearly 85 minutes of video, he recalls his experiences during the war and then, more briefly, what happened to him after he returned. He was 78 years old when he made that video, an old man looking back nearly sixty years to remember what happened to him when he was a twenty-year-old soldier. He speaks wistfully of the young women he dated (“a girl in every camp,” he brags) and is often drawn into long reveries about his various extra-military antics. My grandfather loved to tell this kind of story as well, the irreverent ones about breaking rules or flouting norms, the ones that made my grandmother wince or apologize if she was standing within earshot. I’ve known other veterans of that war who spoke this way. Most of these men were not professional soldiers, so they were never quite at ease with Army life. They were often proud to have skirted the rules and not gotten caught. The damned army regs. Bucking them was a point of pride.
When you listen to these men tell their war stories, you must learn to interpret. Every storyteller has his biases and obsessions, the tangents he or she cannot resist indulging. There is always a foreground and a background. For Sergeant Stanley, women are always in the foreground. They are in every frame of his account. He is desperate for you to know that he talked to women throughout the war, dated them, danced with them, and sometimes kissed them. He wants you to know that when he was twenty and wearing that uniform, he was irresistibly handsome and virile. When my grandfather told war stories, art was almost always in the foreground. He was painting signs or making cards to sell to other GIs or drawing cartoons for the company’s ad-hoc newspaper. He wanted you to know that he was able to indulge his passion during the war, as if he alone had learned how to trick the army out of treating him like an all-purpose gopher and ditch-digger.
From Stanley, I learned a few details about life in Camp McCoy, like the fact that they hiked sometimes twenty or thirty miles wearing a seventy-pound pack or that the ground was so cold that when they finally broke camp to leave for the war, the big tent stakes had to be pulled out of the frozen ground with a jeep.
Near the end of the Camp McCoy portion of Stanley’s narrative, he tells a quick story about one of the other GIs: Part of their boot camp training involved live-fire exercises in which the soldiers were required to crawl under barbed wire while real bullets were fired over their heads (having never served in the military myself, I can only guess that this was a terrifying experience). It was during one of these exercises that the 132nd sustained its first casualty of the war. Stanley does not name the soldier in his account, but he was Private Daniel L. Alvarado, 21, of San Angelo, Texas, a Hispanic man, married to a woman who was pregnant with their first child. At some point during the exercise, Private Alvarado was struck in the head with a bullet and killed. Two other men were also injured in the exercise, Private Carl Missimer, 38, from Russell, Kansas, and Loyd G. Noble, 25, from Wyandotte, Michigan.
I wonder if my grandfather knew this man. There is no way to know this for certain, but if there was any subset of soldiers in that group of 300+ men that he knew best, it was the other married men. He speaks of them often in his letters, as if they are a brotherhood
dispersed throughout the theatre of war. They stuck together, he said. These men carried the extra burden of the child or children at home. What will happen to them if I die? How will they survive without me? How will I be remembered by them?
Daniel Lara Alvarado went into the ground in April of 1944 and my grandfather did not—a divergence. He went on to survive the war and return home to his family. There are so many stories like this in war—two people whose lives are running more or less parallel to one another, until one of them raises his head a few inches higher than the other (or maybe it isn’t his fault at all, maybe it’s a stray bullet that arcs downward instead of flying straight) and then he’s dead, just like that. And maybe that’s the way life is normally—that there are these unseen margins always separating life and death—but those margins are a lot narrower and more obvious in a war.
How is Daniel Alvarado remembered, this father of an unborn child who never lived to see his child's face? Who is he to this child, if he or she still lives? How is the soldier who dies even before leaving the training base remembered? Is he remembered at all? Is his legacy to be a picture framed on a wall and a twenty-second story to be told by his child and grandchildren? Is it enough of a legacy for him that his child exists at all?
I reached out to a possible descendent of Alvarado’s, a grandniece, on Ancestory.com and we shared a brief correspondence. I was curious about the fate of his descendants. I shared some of the information I have found in my own genealogical research, the articles about the live-fire accident and a picture I found of Alvarado’s gravesite in San Angelo, Texas. She does not know much about what happened to that part of her family so there was not much for her to share.
Alvarado's gravestone is capped with a big crucifix. Beneath it, at the center, is a small photo of Alvarado in his army uniform. He looks like a teenager, with a sheepish grin, as if he is unsure of how to feel about his new role in society. The cap of his dress uniform appears to be a size too big for his head. Another boy sent off to war, but this one would never even make it out of the country.
When I think of how my grandfather left for the war, Alvarado is there with him, now a permanent fixture in my imagination. On that day in April, he died and my grandfather lived. A simple divergence. There is no heroic tale to tell. A bullet arched downward when it should have flown straight. No one in this scenario was more deserving of that fate than anyone else. Two men crawling beneath a snare of barbed wire. One man comes out the other side; the other does not. And yet, fully aware of the randomness of this death, I cannot help but tie their fates together, and to see how clearly my fate is tied to theirs.