His name is legion in the United States of America’s great family album – the veteran who serves youthful years in horrific danger in a distant war, then comes home and never has much to say about it. Unless calling up memories that make us laugh with him.
Walter Boone Lucas was such a fellow. With smiling self-deprecation, he would tell of being drafted in Baltimore in 1942, marching on the boardwalk in Atlantic City (hasty mustering of fresh troops) with a broom handle (rifle shortage), in boots too big (no size 6.5 available), then training as a radio technician at Kelly Field in San Antonio but not being immediately assigned like everyone else (his name literally lost by the paper pushers). After all fellow trainees had shipped out, he inquired about his own status, and only then got an assignment. To cap it off, he sailed on a commandeered “troop” ship (the Queen Mary) to England, where (he always recounted with Groucho-like zest) there sure was an abundance of English girls.
Even the ugly chapters got told with a laugh. Landing in the second wave at Omaha Beach, he drove his truck off the landing vehicle into a shell hole and sank out of sight. Never having learned to swim, he had to be rescued from drowning by his buddy, George Kreier. Separated from their unit in the chaos, they took refuge in an orchard and ate apples until a combat squad swept through and gave them their jobs to do: make radio crystals for battlefield communications.
From there it was the long slog to Rheims with Eisenhower’s Army. Walter’s recollections gathered a Yossarian air. For example, finding ways to profit from the circumstances, he rescued and repaired laundry equipment for a bootleg business. And improbable adventures: Once he jumped in the jeep with “Cowboy,” the radio crystal delivery driver, hoping to locate his brother, Bill, in nearby combat units, unaware that he was driving into terrain about to be overrun in the Battle of the Bulge.
Somewhere prior to the intensified noise and danger, he said, Cowboy stopped for a respite at an isolated place of entertainment that provided food, drink and female companionship for both German and Allied soldiers – a pocket of free market enterprise prevailing against all odds.
And so forth. Both he and brother Bill, whom he never found that day, made it home to Baltimore safely when the war ended.
And that’s how Pop Pop, as he was known to his grandson Christopher Burdette (and to the rest of us now in loving memory) talked about what he did in The War.
How Kurt Vonnegut enters the story 60 years later
Walter and his wife, Mary Ellen, the sweetheart of his war-time correspondence, eventually moved to Fort Lauderdale with their daughter, Mary Carol, and after she went off to college, to the smaller Palm Beach County city of Jupiter.
He and Mary Ellen stayed in touch with old friends from post WWII days, including George Kreier. At the medical center in Jupiter, where Walter served as chief engineer, he met another veteran, George Zara, who cleaned the hospital floors every night. For years, he and Walter fished every Friday morning, weather and health allowing.
Walter told us that George had been a POW for most of the last year of the war in Europe. Fishing with him and Walter off the remains of an old bridge near where the Loxahatchee River flows past the Jupiter Lighthouse into the Atlantic, I asked George where he’d been held prisoner. Dresden, he said. I asked about the circumstances and he told of being forced to clear the Dresden streets of debris and wreckage from Allied bombing, of the kind hands that smuggled food and water out of kitchen doors to the prison laborers, about the guards who looked almost as hungry as he and the other prisoners.
That sounded awfully familiar. I asked if he had ever heard of Kurt Vonnegut or the novel, Slaughterhouse Five. He said no. No surprise. Neither he nor Walter read fiction. But after a few seconds George said well, there was a tall, skinny kid from Indiana whose last name was Vonnegut, but no, he’d never heard about any books or fame.
This was such an understated, humbling, seismic revelation that I had to pretend to be serious about fishing while I absorbed it. Then it came to me that this was characteristic of a generation (including my father and my veteran brothers in law). I quietly watched these two men in their 80s, their unpretentious memories, their simple pleasures, the laughter that punctuated their conversation, their comfort with silence, their gladness to be alive.
Honor on the Queen Mary
When we lived in Los Angeles and they came to visit, we took Walter and Mary Ellen to see the Queen Mary, now docked at Long Beach and operated like a museum. It’s open for tours, and when we joined a group of a dozen visitors one afternoon, the tour guide treated Walter as an honored guest. A section of bunkrooms and mess halls had been preserved exactly as they had been when the Queen Mary served as a troop ship.
At the end of the tour, Walter got a round of applause. Then, when we went up on deck to walk around, he did what we’re sure he had wanted to do 60 years earlier. He climbed up on a forward anti-aircraft battery and aimed his eye up the barrel of the great gun.
Born on July 4th, 1924, Pop Pop died after a brief illness on July 5th, 2006, the day after his 82nd birthday.