The One Man

Andrew Gross

The One Man

© 2016

To my father-in-law, Nate Zorman, for the stories told and for those that still remain inside

Recent reports both through the newspapers and through secret service, have given indications that the Germans may be in possession of a powerful new weapon which is expected to be ready between November and January [1944]. There seems to be considerable probability that this new weapon is tube alloy [i.e., uranium]. It is not necessary to describe the probable consequences which would result if this proves to be the case.

It is possible that the Germans will have, by the end of this year, enough material accumulated to make a large number of gadgets which they will release at the same time on England, Russia and this country. In this case, there would be little hope for counter-action… This would place particularly Britain in an extremely serious position but there would be hope for counter-action from our side before the war is lost, provided our own tube alloy program is drastically accelerated in the next few weeks.

MANHATTAN PROJECT PHYSICISTS EDWARD TELLER AND HANS BETHE TO ROBERT OPPENHEIMER AUGUST 21, 1943

PROLOGUE

The private room is on the fourth floor of the Geriatric wing at the Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Administration Hospital outside Chicago, bent, old men shuffling down the hall in hospital gowns with nurses guiding them and portable IVs on their arms.

The woman steps in, in her mid-fifties but still young-looking, smartly put together, in a short, quilted Burberry jacket and olive cowl, her dark hair in a ponytail. She sees her father in a chair, looking smaller to her than she’d ever seen him before, frailer, even in the two months since the funeral. For the first time, she can see the bony lines of his cheeks coming through, yet still with that remarkable full head of hair-graying, but not yet white. He has a blanket draped over his lap, the television on. CNN. One thing you could always count on, even in the middle of a Bears game on Thanksgiving with all the grandkids around, was her dad asking if they could put on the news. “Just to hear what’s happening! What’s wrong with that?” But he’s not watching this time, just staring out, blankly.

She notices his hand shaking. “Pop?”

The day nurse seated across from him puts down her book and stands up. “Look who’s here!”

He barely turns, no longer hearing so well in his right ear. His daughter goes in and smiles to the nurse, a large black woman from St. Lucia, whom they hired to be with him pretty much full time. When he finally catches sight of her, her father’s face lights up in a happy smile. “Hey, pumpkin.”

“I told you I was coming, Pop.” She bends down beside him and gives him a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” he says.

“You have?”

“Of course. What else is there to do here?”

Her eyes are drawn to the shelf next to his bed, to the things she put there on her last visit, a month ago.

The Northern Illinois Bar Association Man of the Year plaque that was on the wall in his office. The photo of him and her mom at the Great Wall in China. A shot of the thirty-eight-foot Hatteras he kept in Jupiter, Florida, which they had now put up for sale. Photos of the grandkids, her own boys, Luke and Jared, among them.

Mementos of a full and happy life.

“Greg said he’d be by a little later.” Her husband. “He had some business to attend to.” Business cleaning up a few issues related to the old house in Highland Park and some lingering matters connected to her mother’s estate.

Her father looks up. “Business? Here?”

“Just some things, Pop… Not to worry yourself. We’ll take care of them.”

He just nods compliantly. “Okay.” Even a year ago he would have put on his glasses and insisted on reviewing every document, every bill of sale.

She runs her hand affectionately through his still-thick hair. “So, ninety-two, huh…? Still looking pretty dashing, Dad.”

“For an old guy, not so bad.” He shrugs with a bony grin.”But I’m not doing any marathons.”

“Well, there’s always next year, right?” She squeezes his arm. “So how is he doing?” she asks the nurse. “Behaving, I hope?”

“Oh, he always behaves.” She laughs. “But the fact is he’s not saying much these days, since his wife passed. He naps a lot. We take walks around the ward. He has some friends he likes to see. Mostly he just sits like he is now. Watches the TV. He likes the news, of course. And baseball…”

“The truth is, he never said very much,” the daughter admits, “unless it was about business. Or his Cubs. He loves his Cubs. For someone who didn’t even know what baseball was when he came to this country. A hundred and seven years and counting, right, Pop?”

“I’m not giving up,” he says with a grin.

“No, I bet you’re not. Hey, you want to go for a walk with me?” She bends down next to him and takes his tremoring hand. “I’ll tell you about Luke. He just got into Northwestern. Where you went, Pop. He’s a smart kid. And he wrestles. Just like you did…”

A look of concern comes over her father’s face. “Tell him to watch out for those farm boys from Michigan State. They’re big. And they cheat…” he says. “You know they’re…”

He makes a sound as if he wants to add something. Something important. But then he just nods and sits back, staring out. His eyes grow dim.

She brushes his cheek with her hand. “What are you always thinking about, Pop? I wish so much for once you could let me in.”

“He’s probably not thinking about very much, since…” the nurse says, not wanting to mention his wife. “I’m not sure he’s following much of anything anymore.”

“I can follow,” he snaps back. “I can follow just fine.” He turns to his daughter. “It’s just that… I do forget things now from time to time. Where’s Mom?” He glances around, as if expecting to see her in her chair. “Why isn’t she here?”

“Mom’s gone, Pop,” the daughter says. “She died. Remember?”

“Oh, yeah, she died.” He nods, continuing to just stare out. “Sometimes I get confused.”

“He was always such a vibrant man,” the daughter opines to the nurse, “though he always carried this kind of sadness with him we never fully understood. We always thought it had to do with losing his entire family back in Poland during the war. He never knew what happened to them. We tried to trace them once, just to find out. They have records. But he never wanted to know. Right, Pop?”

Her father just nods, his left hand continuing to shake.

“Look, I have something to show you.” From her tote, she takes out a plastic bag. Some things he likes. The Economist magazine. A few new pictures of the grandkids. A bar of Ghirardelli chocolate. “We found something… Cleaning out the house. We were going through a few of Mom’s old things she had buried away. Up in the attic.” She takes a cigar box out of the bag. “Look what we found…”

She opens the box. There are some old photos inside. One of her father and mother during WWII, receiving a medal from two high-ranking military men. An old passport and military papers. A small, creased, black-and-white photo of a pretty blond woman in a rowboat, the front rim of her white cap turned up. The opening page of a Mozart concerto torn in half, then taped back together. A polished white chess piece. A rook.

For a second, her father’s eyes show some light.

“And then this…” She brings out a velvet pouch and takes something out from it.

It’s a medal. A bronze cross with an eagle on it, attached to a blue and red ribbon. The pouch has some dust on it; it’s clearly been tucked away in the box for a long time. She puts it in his palm. “It’s not just any medal, Dad. It’s the Distinguished Service Cross.”

The old man stares at it for a second and then turns away. It’s clear he’s not happy to see it.

“They only give this for the most extreme acts of bravery. The boys looked it up. You would never talk about what it was like for you during the war. Back in Poland. Only that you were in the…”

She stops. Whenever the topic turned to the horrors of “the camps,” her father would turn away or leave the room. For years he would never even wear short sleeves, and never showed anyone his number.

“Look…” She hands him the photo of him with the military officers. “We never ever saw this growing up. How is this possible? You were a hero.”

“I wasn’t a hero.” He shakes his head. “You just don’t know.”

“Then tell me,” the daughter says. “We’ve wanted to know for so long. Please.”

He opens his mouth as if about to say something, finally, but then just shakes his head and stares off into space again.

“If you didn’t do something important, then why did they give you that medal?” she asks. She shows him the photo of the pretty woman in the boat. “And who is this? Was she part of your family back there? In Poland?”

“No, not family…”

This time, her father takes up the torn music sheet and stares at it. There’s a distant glimmer in his eyes. Maybe a smile, something buried back in time that has come alive again unexpe ...

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