Bob lived in an old two story tenement, thin, tall, and long with clapboard exterior badly in need of paint. Other tenements of similar age and quality lined the street, which was crowded with parked cars, some working but others in stagnant decay. Children ran and played, darting in and out among the cars, on a bright sunny day in August. The house on Franklin Street was in the industrial town of Haverhill, Massachusetts, where Bob had grown up and spent his life.
Bob had attended Haverhill High School when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor; he enlisted at the end of his junior year, and returned to the town after the war to spend a large part of the remainder of his life.
He lived with his parents during the years of declining health, their’s and his. When his father died in 1973, Bob continued to live with his mother until she went to the nursing home and died, after which he lived in the tenement alone.
Bob lived on the second floor. One entered the house from the outdoor stairs at the rear of the dwelling. The door opened to the kitchen.
When I first met Bob, he had the look of a recluse. The house was dark, save for the generous sunlight entering the window above the kitchen table. The darkness of the shadowy rooms provided an appropriate background for his drab, dark clothing, dark hair, and black-rimmed glasses. His eye-contact was brief and retreating, his mannerism nervous, betraying discomfort, his voice hesitant, soft and raspy. Bob was not one to shake hands. Yet he had a pleasant if shy smile and said hello weakly if sincerely. He held his right arm close to his side and performed all actions using the left. He was terribly stooped over, his back and hips dominating, his arms and chest appearing fragile.
The house was warm, as the windows were closed, and the air was still save for gentle currents stirred by an old fan that rotated methodically. Bob was dressed in blue-gray trousers and a colorless short-sleeve button-down shirt. He wore black leather shoes and dark socks. He was clean-shaven and his hair well-groomed with hair tonic, the parting meticulously formed. The atmosphere of reclusiveness tempered the conversation, which focused on mundane matters of family.
Bob rarely left the tenement. He infrequently saw his mother, who was in ill health, living in a nearby nursing home. Bob stayed connected to the outside world by television and, in particular, radio. Bob loved listening to his small portable that he kept on the kitchen table. He would spend hours sitting and listening to the music of his youth, the big band sounds of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey.
Bob in middle age began to suffer from the effects of spondylitis, a degenerative disorder of the spine, which caused him to progressively stoop over. The doctors told Bob that an operation could perhaps alleviate some of the spinal curvature, hence some of the pain he suffered. But Bob had seen enough of hospitals–one and a half years of recovery was enough for anyone. The best solution, he reasoned, was rest, sameness, and immobility. Bob could not, of course, work by this time, and his VA benefits helped him get by with the few necessities he required of food, coffee, shaving cream, hair tonic, comb, toothbrush, radio, and television. The list had once included cigarettes, but as Bob watched his mother increasingly suffer from the effects of emphysema, he found his smokes, once a necessity, now repulsive.
Bob ordered his solitary existence the best he could. The great tunes of the 40s, the screaming trumpets and melodic clarinets, helped to pass the time, as did the television. Bob also enjoyed reading magazines about electronics and automobiles—Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. His daily regimen rarely changed. He awakened late in the morning, having stayed up to midnight or beyond listening to the radio or watching an old movie. Upon rising Bob ate brunch, washing down the food with strong black coffee, which he called “high test.” Bob sat long over his meals, sometimes an hour or more. His favorite dish was salt fish dinner–boiled new potatoes covered with sugar beets and a white sauce made of salt cod and salt pork. With his mother in the nursing home, Bob currently relied on TV dinners delivered from the local market.
Bob’s daily toilet was extensive. He could spend an hour at shaving, and almost as long combing his hair. Everything had to be in its place.
Bob’s unusual slowness was due, not only to his methodical obsessions, but also because of his arm, injured so long ago, that permanently crippled him. His back made him stoop terribly and his arm disabled him, to be sure; but these were symptoms of the underlying disability, which was of the mind and spirit.
Being a student of human nature, I was intrigued by this strange man. Settling down in nearby New Hampshire, I took the opportunity whenever possible to observe Bob. Uncle Bob, as the family called him, was tortoise-like, peaceful, harmless, usually staying securely in his shell, though sometimes popping his head out to eat and converse with the few people that he trusted.
One of these was Milt, like Bob a veteran of World War II, who was Bob’s complete opposite. Milt was loud, gregarious, active, and charming, a successful businessman and corporate executive. The happenstance of marriage had brought these two men together, Milt having married Bob’s sister Shirley. Every summer Milt and Shirley made a pilgrimage to the family summer cottage at Country Pond, New Hampshire, which Bob’s family the Newcomb’s had owned for years. Bob, and his mother and father while they were still alive, spent the summer months at the cottage.
Bob would disrupt his normal routine when Milt arrived, and would tag along wherever Milt went, asking questions, making observations, allowing his loneliness to exude from him, attempting to make up in a few weeks for the long months of emotional solitude. Milt was an engineer who could understand Bob’s unrelenting questions about automobile suspensions, wheel bearings, disk brakes, horse power, cylinders, and more. Bob loved to talk long into the evening about whatever sedan Milt had brought on his month-long summer sojourn in New Hampshire.
Milt spent his vacation doing repairs to the cottage. As Milt painted the walls Bob stood nearby, humped, right arm safely out of the way in his pants pocket, watching Milt work, unwilling to help but filled with admiration and happiness. It was a sad time indeed when Labor Day approached and summer ended, Milt and family departed. Bob returned to Haverhill, the days grew shorter, and the long winter set in. Bob retreated to his table and his radio and into the past, reliving, trying to explain it, wondering what if things had been different.
Bob at first never spoke of his experiences during the war. Indeed, most veterans of World War II were silent about the war. Some were reluctant to bring up the memories of a horrendous past. Others had made a promise to themselves to live only in the present and forget the past. Some were unwilling to de-mythologize the war with stories of personal involvement. Bob had submerged memories of the past deep within the mundane experiences of the present moment. Nevertheless, the horror, the shock, the pain, the torture, the fear, the waiting, the boredom, of the past revealed itself in Bob’s mannerisms and actions.
As the few years that I knew him passed, Bob began to talk about his experiences to me in response to my queries about the war. He recalled the sights and sounds of the war. He loved recounting the great speeches of FDR and Churchill. He began to tell me about how he came to be a part of D-Day. . . .
Private First Class Robert Newcomb of Haverhill, Massachusetts was part of the D-Day invasion in June, 1944. Bob was still in high school when he enlisted in the infantry. He had watched the war throughout his school years, and had tried to support it by buying stamps to support the effort. Upon enlistment, he was transported to Texas for basic training, then on to Camp Meade in Maryland, for more extensive training, during which he developed into a sharpshooter.
Training materials included pamphlets on what to expect in Europe. A Short Guide to Great Britain told those heading toward England that “you are going to Great Britain as part of an Allied offensive—to meet Hitler and beat him on his own ground. For the time being you will be Britain’s guest. The purpose of this guide is to start getting you acquainted with the British, their country, and their ways. America and Britain are allies. Hitler knows that they are both powerful countries, tough and resourceful. He knows that they, with the other United Nations, mean his crushing defeat in the end. So it is only common sense to understand that the first and major duty Hitler has given his propaganda chiefs is to separate Britain and America and spread distrust between them. If he can do that, his chance of winning might return. We can defeat Hitler’s propaganda with a weapon of our own. Plain, common horse sense; understanding of evident truths.”
The men, destined for France, read the Pocket Guide to France: “You are about to play a personal part in pushing the Germans out of France. The Allied offensive you are taking part in is based upon a hard-boiled fact. It’s this. We democracies aren’t just doing favors in fighting for each other when history gets tough. We’re all in the same boat. Take a look around you as you move into France and you’ll see what the Nazis do to a democracy when they can get it down by itself.”
The goal for soldiers like Bob was to reach Germany, where, according to the Pocket Guide to Germany: “Whether you fight your way in, or march in to occupy Germany under armistice terms, you will be doing a soldier’s job on the soil of the enemy. The occupation of Germany will give you your chance to build up a personal guarantee that as soon as you turn your back to go home, the German will not pick up his shooting irons and start throwing lead and lies at an unsuspecting world once more. One of the greatest challenges of the Peace to come is to make certain that the German people will take their place as law-abiding, useful citizens in the family of nations.”
Bob was transported along with his company across the Atlantic to England, where he spent months preparing for the invasion of Europe. June 6, 1944, Operation Overlord began. The 29th infantry was ferried across the English Channel on transport boats.
During the voyage, the water was choppy, and the men were seasick. Approaching Omaha Beach, Bob’s craft hit a mine and exploded. Although most men on board died, Bob was thrown from the craft into the sea, where he swam to shore, all the while under attack from bullets and shrapnel from German defensive positions. After several days, he reunited with his unit, and they marched inland to a town called St Lo. There, on August 1, Bob was wounded when a shell exploded near him. He lost the use of his arm. Taken to a field hospital, he was eventually transported back to Britain, then America. Eventually he was sent to a resort in West Virginia to recover from his wounds. He was in various hospitals for almost a year.
Bob, now aged 20, returned to Haverhill a changed man. He could not use his arm for the rest of his life. But the emotional wounds were deeper, more profound. He became an emotional cripple who lost his zest for life, and spent the remainder of his years yearning for what could have been, but never was.