Uncle Sam died yesterday. My parents called to tell. When we were children we made outings to Uncle Sam and Aunt Ida’s. They lived in a neighborhood that was not far from ours, but foreign nonetheless, the houses smaller and set close to the street. They had a furry little dog that wiggled around our legs, too excited to pet. As I remember it, Aunt Ida was skinny, high cheekboned, tanned, half moons of color on the lids of her eyes that curved from her head like domes. She laughed a lot and always smiled even when the smile turned sad. It felt real easy-going at their house, Aunt Ida’s voice loud and musical, like the star of a sit-com, all oh’s and ah’s. Uncle Sam was quieter but his voice was gruff and deep. Dad told us stories that Uncle Sam fought in the thick of World War II. Five landings including Okinawa. One of his fishing buddies collected WWII books and when the man died the books were passed on to Sam. One day, one of his daughters was looking through a volume from Time Life when she saw her dad. The photographer was standing at the back of the boat that had just landed at Palau. Soldiers were on the beach, some running, some, bellies to the ground, shooting into the thick of trees decorated with the flashing of enemy gunfire. One Marine was turned, looking back towards the empty boat as if to say, isn’t anyone else coming? That was Sam.
After victory was declared, Sam came home, after four years away. My dad, just eight, remembers seeing this guy who looked like a movie star in a Marine uniform running up the street, running to see my dad’s Aunt Ida. My dad and his little sister stood inside Chodak’s house spying through the venetian blinds at Sam and Ida sitting next to each other on the porch swing, kissing. They had three children.
Sam never talked about what happened in the war. We knew not to ask. But late in life, he told my dad about being on watch and one night coming across a Japanese soldier and shooting him dead. He couldn’t have been any older than Sam. For days, he walked back and forth on watch, passing the man he had killed. Then, he started talking to him. You better get up, Sam would scold, or they’re going to kill you. He knew he was going a little bit crazy.
The last time I saw Sam was at the beginning of this past summer. He walked stooped, leaning on a cane, pained. It frustrated him, he admitted, but then he shrugged his thin shoulders, nothing he could do about it. For some reason, that day, as we picnicked at my parents’ place, Sam talked about the war. I had some room left on my camera, and I got a little footage of Sam, the very first time I ever heard him talking like that, age 89.
Everyone there was amazed to hear Sam talking about the war, so Helen called her friend who archives interviews with Omaha Jews, and the man came out to Sam’s, twice because the first time, he forgot to turn on his recorder. He shot two full hours of Sam telling stories.
It was at Uncle Sam and Aunt Ida’s house that we all got to try our first pair of headphones. I was littlest, so I had to wait until last, watching my brothers’ expressions, standing there in the silence. Then Uncle Sam lowered the giant muffs over my ears and my mouth opened wide from the sensation, waves of music pulsing from the inside, out.
Sam and Ida always seemed to appreciate each other. It was sad to hear about Ida dying, knowing how lonely Sam would be. He lived without Ida in the house for eight more years, up until two weeks ago. My dad said he was real sharp through the end, that the doctors offered to do surgery on his gut to keep him alive, and Sam said no, he was ready to go. He told my dad to make sure the book made it to his surviving daughter. My dad knew he meant the one with his picture from the war. He got real weak after that, his breathing fuzzy, his lungs filling up with fluid. His breath rattled and then he completely relaxed and was gone.
Fedman, Sam Jan 3, 1924 - Sep 13, 2013
last picture my mom took of Uncle Sam, with my husband, early summer 2013