Bearing Witness

George Herwig is one of the Veterans Breakfast Club’s greatest ambassadors.  When Dan and I start a new location, we often bring George along to help break the ice.  He’s a dapper and youthful 86-year-old Coast Guard veteran with a full head of hair (turning from gray back to his original black due to medication he’s begun taking).  I hadn’t known anything about the Coast Guard’s role in WWII before meeting George.  He served three-and-a-half years overseas, in the Atlantic and Pacific, ferrying men and supplies to bloody battlegrounds.  He’s loquacious and has been his whole life.  Still, he’s never told his real war stories.  George’s stories tend to be funny and touching, not grim and mysterious.  I do know he’s seen plenty of grimness. 

I drove him home from a breakfast recently along the Monongahela River, through the old steel towns of Swissvale, Rankin, and Homestead and was privy to George’s articulate and precise recall of a world long gone.  He pointed to the brownfields where spooky smokestacks are the only things remaining of  what was the world’s largest steel mill.  He told me about a grand movie theater on Homestead’s main street that was crowded with people every day.  He gestured as if by reflex as we crossed the 73-year-old Homestead Grays Bridge (formerly the Homestead High Level Bridge and renamed in 2002 in honor of the great Negro League baseball team) toward the location of Chiodo’s, a favorite steelworkers bar that was torn down several years ago.  As he talked, I could almost picture what this rusted out section of our region was like in its heyday.  He also gave me a glimpse of his personal history.

When I first came home from the war I got a job in a steel mill.  It paid well, but I knew it wasn’t for me.  In two months there, I saw two men die, and my own clothes caught fire when I was working near a furnace.  I quit on the spot.  I tried to get a job on a riverboat, thinking my time at sea would make me a good fit, but the river captain told me seafaring was nothing like rivering.  So I got a job driving busses.  I had learned how to drive trucks during the war.  I drove busses the rest of my life.  6 million miles over 60 years.

Last December, George was hospitalized with severe diabetes.  He returned to our breakfasts in March weak and diminished, looking almost his age.  The illness forced him to quit, at long last, his tour bus driving.  I think it was hard for him to be a passenger in my van, watching me navigate to his place  in a mobile home park off of an old four-lane road.  He stared out the window and talked.

“This was all apple orchards when we moved here after the war,” he said, waving his hand at the strip malls that flanked both sides of the road.    Coming upon the old Allegheny County Airport, he reminded me that this tiny facility, now used mostly by private flyers, was once THE airport, and as a young man George looked up whenever a plane passed overhead.  Flight was still a wonder.

George talked about how in 1945, few people owned cars.  They took busses everywhere, and George drove them.  Today, Pittsburgh, like most communities, has a public transit authority which runs the busses.  But I knew that such wasn’t the case back then.  Bus companies were private for-profit enterprises.  I asked George, “How many bus companies were there in Pittsburgh after the war?”

“Twenty-eight,” he said, without hesitation.  “And 26 of them were profitable.  The only two that weren’t were family owned and run by incompetents.”

Is there something in our DNA that prompts storytelling as we near the end of life?  Are we programmed to remember, and point out to others, what we’ve seen and done and what the world was like when we were young?  Is it nature’s way of ensuring that the past doesn’t die with us?  Like a stalk of wheat which drops its head and scatters its seed on the ground, old men and women tell stories, expecting the ground to be inhospitable to most of them.  But, every once in a while a seed takes root and grows.  A story sticks and is passed on. 

Is this what is called bearing witness?