Still Here, Still There

I.

At first, neither of them expressed much interest in talking about the war. Robert Marson’s medals—Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Silver Cross, all from the fighting above Naples—were somewhere in the attic of the old house on Union Avenue in Memphis, where he had lived since 1963, and he didn’t want anybody crawling around up there looking for them. Eugene Schmidt’s Close Combat badge, earned on the Eastern Front in late 1943, had been discarded long ago. They had both raised families, had lived their separate lives; their children were grown and mostly gone, or dead; their wives were dead. They did not like the prospect of traveling.

But here they were, two surviving soldiers from opposite sides, in Washington, DC, on this soft spring-like July 3, 2016. The Washington Post and NPR had contributed to bringing them together again as part of a small Independence Day ceremony for the benefit of what Schmidt’s grandson Hans called the media, in a tone Marson characterized to his eldest son as being very much like that of somebody speaking about a condition or an era: the flu, the Great Depression.

The young man, Hans Schmidt, was the one responsible for it all.

His mother had come to America when she was pregnant with him, and he had been raised in the house of his grandmother’s younger sister, Brigitte. He was studying communications and film at the University of Maryland and had been spending the spring as an intern at the Post. As part of his thesis project he had set up a reunion, which he would film. When he mentioned this to an editor, and spoke about how his grandfather, deciding to surrender, had saved the life of a US soldier near Monte Cassino seventy-two years ago, the editor looked up from his turkey sandwich and said, “Wait a minute. Tell me that again?”

The young man repeated it all.

“Your grandfather was a Nazi soldier?”

“He was a German soldier. He lives in Boston now. And the US soldier he saved is also alive. In Memphis, but originally he’s from here. From DC. They’re both alive and well.”

The editor, whose name was Will Smalley, stared for a second, then picked up his napkin and wiped his mouth. “And the one saved the other.”

“Yeah. My grandfather. And the other one grew up here in DC. They were even in touch for a while after the war. They became friendly.”

Smalley, a dark, unibrowed man with deep-socketed eyes and a continual odor of bay rum about his person, leaned back in his chair, smiling. “This’ll be quite a thing if you can bring it off.”

“I’ve already got it set up.”

“The Na— Sorry. The German lives in Boston now.”

“He’s my grandfather, and he was never a Nazi. His name is Eugene Schmidt. A Catholic. When he was a young man he was studying to be a librarian and wasn’t interested in politics. He never had any kind of anti-Semitism, either. He was a kid, you know. He’ll tell you about it. When he got a little older he thought it was a craziness that would go away. Then the talk and the speeches and the sewed-on stars. He went into the war like all the able-bodied men, and he fought in Russia first. Then he was in Italy, where he saved the life of Robert Marson. And yes, he lives with my mother and my grandmother’s sister Brigitte now, in Boston.”

“And you’re gonna bring him and the American together again.”

“Yes, sir. That’s the plan.”

Smalley grinned. “No waiting on this one, right?”

“In today’s world, sir, they could outlive us both.”

He looked out the window. “Yeah. Guess you got that right.” On the desk at his elbow was the newest issue of Time magazine, its cover listing the names of the dead in Orlando. “Aren’t you a bit young to have a World War Two veteran for a grandfather?”

Hans Schmidt nodded, talking. “My grandmother and he met when he was in his late fifties. He was sixty-one when my mother was born. My grandmother saved his life, really. He was in bad shape, I guess. I grew up here but my mother and great-aunt still speak German at home.”

“And how old is he now?”

“Ninety-five.”

“Damn. And the US soldier, Marson?”

“Ninety-nine.”

“Jesus.”

Hans Schmidt went on. “They actually kept in touch for a time after the war.”

The editor grinned. “You told me about this because you knew what I’d do, didn’t you?”

“What’re you going to do?”

The editor opened his cell phone. “I know somebody at NPR. I bet we can defray some of your expenses, son.”

Hans waited.

“How’d you come to this, anyway?”

“I found a couple of old cards from my grandfather to him, addressed to a place here, in DC—well, Arlington. That’s what gave me the idea. I mean, at first I thought I’d see about talking to someone in his family. I located his eldest son, Patrick Marson, who lives here, in Arlington. And I found out the old man’s alive and living in Memphis. So I got in touch with him. I just spoke to him again this week.”

“And he can travel? They can travel?”

“My grandfather came over here from Anspach about nine years ago, after my grandmother passed away. He uses a wheelchair and a walker but he can get around. Marson doesn’t even need a cane. They’ve both been hesitant about the whole thing, but they’re going to do it.”

The editor held up one hand and spoke into his cell. “Mary, I think I’ve got something for you all.”

Please log in to access the full content.
If you are new to Narrative, signing up is FREE and easy.