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by Carol M. McCarl
Those of you who knew Walt Stromer personally, or who had glimpses of his personality as expressed many times in past issues of DIALOGUE, deserve to know him better. As you read in his short autobiographical piece that follows, you will know that he gave considerable thought to the circumstances of life when one copes with the hand they've been dealt. Although he was an emeritus professor of theatre and speech at Cornell College and a writer who annually entered contests and won prizes for his poetry, he was also quite a philosopher. I know his colleagues and former students from Cornell will always keep his memory as a part of their lives.
We lost a true friend in April of 2005 when lung cancer took Walt to join so many other soldiers. I will be missing the calls that used to begin with, "I've been thinking about something...an idea for an article..." and then I would know I was going to be treated to an interesting conversation with Walt. May "A Letter Too Late" be a tribute to all veterans, and in particular, we honor the man, Walt Stromer, who tells his story in his own words.
by Walt Stromer
Mt. Vernon, Iowa
I thought it was an original Iowa expression to say, "If I had my druthers," but Mark Twain said it first. Late, late one night in the bar at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, after two gin and tonics, a friend and I were discussing our druthers. We concluded that if the gods asked us, gave us a choice, we would rather lose our sight in our 20s than at any other age. At that age you would have finished high school, maybe some college, and you would have learned some of the things that are harder to grasp without sight such as perspective and the immensity of huge objects or structures. Also you would still be young enough to travel and to learn braille, though ploddingly.
After one more gin and tonic, we further concluded that we would rather be blinded in a moment than have it dragged out over 10 or 20 years. Losing sight gradually must be like living every day with the fear that the other shoe is going to drop. That could intimidate a person and maybe warp a personality. The reasons for our speculation and conclusions may be a bit clearer if I tell a bit of my own story.
A grandson recently asked me, "Grandpa, why did you go into the Army?" With the wisdom and patience befitting a grandpa, I explained that in World War II everybody registered for service. Some were deferred for essential war work and the rest of us went into military service. I could have gone in with a good rating as a clerk typist but I wanted to learn something new, so I enlisted in the Signal Corps and studied radio repair, radio code and telephone. Then the Germans and Japanese persuaded us that our real need was for infantry. Within six weeks, I was transformed into an infantry grunt carrying two boxes of ammunition for a machine gun. Each box weighed 22 pounds, which gets heavy, heavy, heavy after several miles going up and down muddy hills in France, wearing four-buckle overshoes. Now I know what it means to be tired.
Then on a frosty morning in January 1945, when I was 24, I was squatting more or less comfortably in a fox hole in a wooded area in Belgium, near Bastogne. Around 10 a.m. a tank shell hit a tree trunk, creating a tree burst, taking away all the light. When the shell hits the tree, it explodes and sends dangerous metal fragments in all directions, and the tree trunk is shattered throwing wood splinters up, down and sideways. I heard a terrific concussion, felt fluid running down my cheeks, which I assumed was blood, and thought I was going to die and was about to say to my buddy, "Tell my mother..." but then decided I was not going to die. I could not see anything and felt no pain, but I was sure pain was coming, and I had never been good at standing pain, so I called for the medic. He was there in seconds, sliced through five layers of clothing on my shoulder and gave me a shot. He said, "We better get you out of here," and I agreed. He took my elbow and guided me back to the aid station, a farm house, perhaps half a mile away.
Later in the day somebody in a hospital, in Liege, Belgium said, "We're going to remove the wood splinters from your eyes." Fine, nothing mattered to me. I was mentally numb, just glad to be out of it alive. I did not think about being blind then.
Now I knew that the fluid on my cheeks had been fluid from the punctured eyes. Years later I met the medic who had helped me that morning and he told me I had wood splinters five inches long in each eye and a piece eighteen inches long in my right shoulder. He worried what he would do if I started grabbing at those, but I didn't know they were there.
What little was left of the left eye was removed in the hospital in England. When I asked about the right eye, the doctor said, "When you get back to the states you can ask them." I'm sure now he knew it was hopeless but he probably wanted to spare my feelings and his own.
Two months later, in the hospital in San Francisco, I made an appointment to see Lt. Fritchie, the ward officer. I suppose I harbored a secret hope that someone would perform a miracle. I knocked at his door. He opened it and said, "Chair in front of you, sit down," and he closed the door. He rustled some papers and said, "I've looked through your file. I guess you know your case is hopeless; you'll never see again. Any questions?" Long pause. "No." "OK, door is open, goodbye." I went back to my bunk and thought of many things, including suicide, though I did not take careful notes on my thought process. An hour later 150 guys on that ward were moving down the aisle chanting "chow" and I joined them.
Before that time, as a lowly private, I disliked all officers, but now I really hated Lt. Fritchie, bearer of bad news. In college two years later, I finally came to see the lieutenant's perspective that morning. He had to tell that grim news to several hundred young men. If he broke down and cried with each one, he could not survive and it would not help them. Also, some of them needed to be told, "This is the end of the line; transfer to the next bus."
I wrote to Lt. Fritchie to tell him I understood why he had been so brusque. I got a reply from his widow; he had died of cancer.
So what do I conclude from this segment of my life? I think it is important always to try to see things from the point of view of the other person. I'm sorry that in this case the insight came too late to benefit Lt. Fritchie. I think we often underestimate the ability of people to handle bad news. If a wimp like me, and I really was, can handle this shock treatment, then so can millions of others. Every now and then I have found myself thinking--I'm glad my sight went totally and quickly. Now when I hear people talk with fear about what will happen when they grow old or when their sight goes completely, I realize I don't have to worry about that.