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To All the Dads I’ve Known on Father’s Day

To All the Dads I’ve Known on Father’s Day
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By Steve Nubie

Father’s Day for me is about the Fathers who have influenced me the most:  My Father, Grandfather and Great-Grandfather.

I was very fortunate growing up because I was able to spend so much time not only with my father, but my grandfather as well.  It was through both of them that I learned about some of the remarkable and historic things my great-grandfather did.

My great-grandfather worked in a logging camp in Michigan from 1886 to 1889.  He was a high-rigger and he had spikes attached to the instep of his boots, a leather and canvas strap to put around the trunk of the tree so he could climb to the top, a small voyageurs’ ax and a one-man whip saw for topping the tree.

His job was to climb to the top of a pine that could be as high as 300 feet and cut off the top portion of the tree.  This was often the only part of the tree to still have branches, and whenever the top broke to the ground the whole tree would sway back and forth.  Sometimes he would attach cables or pulleys to the top of the tree to serve as a leverage point to drag trunks from valleys or swampy areas.

My grandfather told me that his dad would often take a break at the top of the tree and admire the view after topping it.  Sometimes he would smoke a pipe. There was no one up there to tell him to hurry and most of the men were terrified of the job he did.

I was always fascinated with the idea of climbing to the top of a tall tree like my great-grandfather but I must admit it sounds both dangerous and scary.  My grandfather agreed.  I used to spend time with my grandfather in Michigan during the summers of my childhood.  There was one particular time I’ll never forget when I was just 7 years old.  Grandpa lived in a cabin that my great-grandfather had built after he quit the logging business.

Across the sand road from his cabin was a cleared field roughly the size of an acre.  It was surrounded by maples, oaks and black cherry trees.  In the field was an assortment of grasses, ferns and the occasional clump of Columbine. Imagine my surprise when I came to spend the summer and saw many of the grasses and weeds cut down.  The sand had been coarsely tilled and long, taut strings crossed the space in perfectly tight lines.  Each line was spaced exactly 15 feet apart.  When I first noticed it I assumed it was some kind of new game he had setup for me.  I found out the next day that it wasn’t quite a game.

Down the sand road from his cabin was a nursery.  He had purchased a couple of hundred pine trees.  Each looked like a stick with pine needles and all were about 6 inches tall. I was thrilled when he handed me a small shovel and asked me to carry one of the boxes to the field across the road.  He had also filled a gallon, glass jug with water from the old pump in front of the cabin.  It was a hot summer day and I asked for my first sip the minute we got across the road.

My Grandpa put the jug in the shade of a tree and told me we were going to plant the pines along the lines he had laid out.  He told me he was going to start on one line and that I should move along with him on a line a few strings down.  I was proud to have my own box of trees to plant and the little shovel he gave me fit my hand perfectly.

We planted throughout the afternoon and took frequent breaks in the shade for a sip of water.  The novelty of the whole thing had long since worn off and I was anxious to get it done and go inside and lay on the couch.  The sun got hotter and we went back to the pump once to refill the jug.  He told me to put my head under the pump and the water running around my neck and face felt so good.

Finally we finished and we both walked the lines to admire our work.   Suddenly, I was stunned to realize something.  All of his seedlings were planted on one side of the string in perfect rows.  My pattern was a bit more random with some on one side of the line and others opposite.  I told him I didn’t know how to do it and said I would fix them, but asked if I could do it tomorrow.  He smiled and told me the way I planted them was just fine.  He said, “Every time I come out here from now on I’ll see those trees wandering a bit and think of you.”  I felt some relief but wished I had paid more attention.

I was back up to the cabin this spring. I fixed a few screens and mowed the grass and looked across the street at the pine forest.  The trees were now towering at 40 to 60 feet.  I walked into the pine woods on a soft carpet of pine needles and admired the size of the trunks.  My Grandpa passed away in 1986 and here I was in 2015 standing in the woods he and I had planted together back when I was just 7.  As I walked I looked down the line of trees and spotted a number of pines planted in a perfect row from end-to-end.  I smiled as I studied the perfect row… and simply thought of him.

My father often joined me on trips to the old Michigan house.  We had converted it into a summer cabin and I enjoyed the long walks we would take along the sand road.  It was during one of these walks that he told me the most amazing story I have ever  heard.

My Dad served in the U.S. Army during World War II.  He was in the 17th Armored Infantry Battalion, 12th Armored Division, in Patton’s Third Army Group.  He was a sergeant and led a squad of about 10 men.  The number varied for all the wrong reasons.  Some were wounded.  Some were killed. Replacements eventually showed up.

They were in the middle of a nightmare called a small town, and both snipers and ambushes had taken there toll as they went door to-door through Herrilsheim, Germany.  The date was some time in mid-January, 1945. Every house had to be checked-out and walking up any stairway had the potential for a violent encounter.

In one particular house my Dad and 3 men from his squad heard a sound from a basement stairway.  They had grenades ready and my Dad called downstairs and said, “Come out.”

Two German soldiers with hands on their heads ran up the stairs and one of the guys in the squad escorted them outside.  My Dad and the other 2 men stood at the top of the stairs and listened.  There was still a sound in the basement.  They had encountered SS Shock troops from the 10th SS Panzer Division, and had endured numerous casualties.

One of the men in my Dad’s squad motioned to pull the pin on their grenades. My Dad shook his head no.  He then turned and began to walk down the stairs. He looked back at the guys from his squad and said they looked at him like he was crazy.

He looked back down into the basement and reached into his front pocket and pulled out a Zippo lighter.  When he got to the bottom of the stairs he flicked it and saw the enemy.  100 Germans.  All women and children.

He looked around the basement the best he could to see if there were any German soldiers.  He then shouldered his M-1 Garand rifle and motioned them up the stairs.  My Dad and his squad then continued their house to house search.  Two men in his squad died later that day.  When I asked my Dad about the basement and the women and the children, and why he told his men not to throw the grenades he just shrugged.  “I don’t know why I did that.” He said. “It made no sense and any officer would have busted me to private.  I’m just glad it worked out the way it did.”

A curious statement. Not heroic or significant, but the act was both noble and brave and unique in the fog of war.  There are medals for acts of valor and he earned that two days later in a fierce tank battle and was awarded the bronze star for valor.  But his greatest act of heroism was for an act of silent and compassionate decision.

I will always be proud and cherish the memories of all of these great fathers that I have  known.



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