My Uncle Tom was a World War II veteran. I remember him best with a twinkle in his eye and big smile on his face, but Uncle Tom had seen the dark side. He had served in North Africa, Italy and Germany during the bleak days of the war.
Growing up, I was riveted to every word when he spoke of those times, and he didn’t do it often. The twinkle would fade and that big smile would disappear, as he told his stories.
His buddy, Joe, and my uncle had been together since the North African landing, and in Italy, they drove ammunition trucks from the supply depots to the ever-advancing front lines. On the mountain roads, these GIs made a race of it.
As they left the ammunition dump, they would “grind her into gear,” put their “foot in the kitchen,” “pop the clutch,” and head north “like the devil himself” was chasing them. One day he was.
That day was to be number19. Tom had beaten Joe the last 18 trips. This time, Tom was fully loaded; Joe was not. As they got to the mountains, Joe passed him, “thumbed his nose with a big grin on his face,” and pulled away.
As Joe widened the gap, his truck was hit by a German plane, and exploded. “My buddy was dead.” Tom said, “We only found bits and pieces of him. Not enough to fill a paper bag.” As I said, he had seen the dark side.
I knew a farmer in Cobleskill. He and his family worked seven days a week at America’s most dangerous profession. In his relentless hurry to get the job done and move on to the next chore, he kept losing small parts of his body and was scarred by cuts and burns. I stopped at his farm one day, and noticed his back was bandaged.
I asked what had happened, and he said, “The crimping rollers in that old mower-conditioner were wrapped with hay. I didn’t have a knife handy, and I didn’t want to stop and go back to the house to get one. So, I took some gas from the tractor and tried burning the hay off. Next thing I know my hand is on fire. I started shaking my hand to put the fire out.”
“How did you burn your back?” I asked. He replied, “I forgot that I still had the cup of gas in my hand.” There are times when a slight smile or laugh can get you in trouble, but there are times when one can’t help oneself.
He said, “You think this is funny?” I said, “Oh, no! Ah, not really, but…well, ah. Maybe?” As I stumbled with words so as not to offend, he started laughing, and before long we were both howling.
He farmed it for a number of years more, but the work and low milk prices took their toll. Eventually, he and his wife would lose the farm and divorce. With the dangers, long hours, and low prices, farmers see the dark side, too.
What do these two men share? Not much, but it is their professions that have something in common. Both a soldier and a farmer are taken for granted.
They are praised when an enemy is threatening and when food is scarce, but other than those times, they are told, “War’s over. Go home. We’ll call you if we need you again, and work like a dog, so I can eat, but don’t get manure on the road, and try not to run your equipment too early, because I’m sleeping.”
We can now add another essential, but thankless, profession to the list of used, abused and forgotten, and that would be the police. They are the men and women in blue or gray who are condemned for doing a job that few of us understand.
Who is the first upon the scene to access the carnage of an auto accident? Who notifies the family or next of kin? Who freezes in the winter and sweats in the summer, outside and usually alone, and who do you call when terror fills your soul? Who comes to put their lives between you and the dark side?
The police. They come, and when it is over, what thanks do they get? At the hint of any wrongdoing, usually unfounded and always before the facts are known, they are called pigs, and cries of racism and brutality are heard. The streets are filled with protesters, and bums chant, “What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want them? Now!”
But, they still come. Soldiers still fight, and farmers still toil.
CHUCK PINKEY is a retired area businessman. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board, but the author thinks they ought to.