Monday, August 01, 2005

Citizen Hans 

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Hans Kaufmann.

Hans fought in World War II in the 96th infantry division's company A with my grandpa, and, for about 40 years or so, these guys and their families have been having annual reunions across the nation. I remember going to my first one in Amarillo, Texas in 1994, where, essentially abandoned by my own weird grandad at age 14, Hans kept me entertained. When my mom told me last week that this year's reunion would be the last and that it was being held in Washington, DC, I had to pop in on Hans and his wife, Faye. It wasn't so much out of a sense of familial duty (though mom insisted I go to take photos for my absentee grandad), but really because Hans, one of the coolest people I've ever met, has the best story I've ever heard. Hans, a Jew born near Dachau, fled Nazi Germany at age fourtenn, eventually winding up on a ship that ported in Louisiana. Skipping a lot of the details, he found himself in high school in Baton Rouge in spite of his inability to speak or comprehend English. Cut to a couple of years later, when he now speaks English fluently, and, whaddya know, he gets drafted into the Army, securing his citizenship. Because of his ethnicity and background, however, he is barred from fighting in the European theater and is sent to the Pacific, where he meets my grandpa. They become friends, get shipped to Okinawa and Leyte where, as members of the very first wave of attack, all of company A are killed save a handful of guys. My grandad gets blown off of a cliff by a mortar, left essentially deaf and dying on an outcropping. Hans gets the shit shot out of him. The two are separated, rescued at different times, and sent to different hospitals for recouperation. Given the poor accounting at the time, each assumes the other is dead. Until, that is, 1994 when my grandad first goes to one of these reunions. How cool is that? Hans' story begs for a screen adaptation (and at the reunion it was made clear that he's got some honorable medals on the way that he never knew he was supposed to have received).

Unfortunately, the closing banquet of the reunion was spoiled by Major General Peter S. Cooke's jackass grandstanding and self-laud. I have a low tolerance for military propaganda, and this chap was certainly playing it up with plenty of hyperbole, pregnant pauses and a goddamn background track of soft, solemn trumpet music. Even the old coots present were irritated. At some point, the old soldiers were asked to volunteer talks about their history and the impact of their actions; one honorable old man stood up and triumphantly launched into a tirade against the war in Iraq. As members of the ridiculous crowd began booing the WWII vet (family members outnumbered veterans 4:1), his voice began rising in conviction. Finally, another vet rose to his feet and, screaming with fury, reminded that everyone present who wasn't loaded with shrapnel ought to shut the fuck up lest one forget that unencumbered voicing of opinions is certainly a well-earned aspect of liberty. That silenced the crowd, for sure, but campy Officer McPride soon follows up with his paternalistic reacharound for "his boys" who were fighting to end global terror. I rolled my eyes, made eye contact with Hans, and we chuckled. 'Nuff said.


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