Mac died this morning, finally succumbing to Lou Gehrig's Disease after years of disbelieving what was happening to him. I remember when the first symptoms of the disease surfaced, as he was baffled and frustrated by the fact that he no longer had the strength to raise his arms over his shoulders. It was a long and painful road down, and I wish that I could say that it was noble or inspiring. Instead, it was just a descent into hell as we saw his personality caving inwards and the fear of death become a palpable presence in his hermetically sealed house
Mac was my father-in-law. Known as Dutch by his oldest friends, from a time after the war when Germans were still being demonized by those whose memories of concentration camps and other horrors were still fresh. He was born in a small thousand year old hamlet that nestles amidst towering trellises covered with hops twenty kilometers outside of Nuremberg. The son of the village policeman, he had a typically peaceful and sleepy upbringing until the war brought all that crashing down. His older brother died in Hitler's incomprehensible attack on the Russian Front and he himself was drafted at the age of sixteen at the tail end of the war. He was cleanup crew, following a slow moving train picking up materiel and personnel through France on the way back to the fatherland. Wounded in a mortar attack, he had to fend for himself as there were no medics to minister to those that were still walking. He ended up having to walk the last thirty or forty kilometers home as the rail system had completely broken down under the pressure of the allied onslaught. He arrived at his home, knocked on the door and his mother tried to turn him away as she did not recognize the man under the blood as the boy that had left her house. Later he was the one the town sent out to see whose tanks were advancing over the valley below and wept with joy that it was the Americans and not the Russians, as the Russians were raping their way through Eastern Europe and Germany. The war would become a lifelong obsession and his most intense intellectual pursuit.
Shortly after the war, he hopped on a motorcycle and left home for a tour of what must have been a bleak war ravaged Europe. Little details are know about that time as he seldom talked about it, but he made it as far as Spain and then went back and applied for a scholarship to continue his interrupted studies in the US. He went to Duke University where he met my wife's mother and shortly after they were married. He was a handsome devil as pictures of him in full James Dean getup, sitting on the bumper of some late forties Chrysler show.
The day after he became an american citizen he was drafted into the Korean War and became a tank driver. He was probably the only person ever to actually gain weight on military chow and the rigid hierarchy of the military suited him to a T. His good looks once more came into play and he was selected as a model to show the brass all around Asia Pacific the new uniforms the Army was switching to. Once he completed his tour of duty, he came back stateside and pronounced to his wife that he had decided to make the military his career and was given a simple choice, my mother in law, or the military. Instead of the army, he worked for Con Edison in Manhattan, rising slowly from digging up the streets to managing all the gas meters in the city when he retired at the early age of fifty-five. That he chose to stay with my mother in law, and give up what would have been his best true calling, speaks volumes of the love he had for her.
They had their difficulties over the years and were perhaps not ultimately very well suited for each other. His knee jerk Republican conservatism, partially abandoned in his later years, clashed with his wife's deeply ingrained liberalism, reaching a crescendo during the Viet Nam War. Nonetheless, they raised two daughters and managed to have a lot of happy times in their quintessential suburban house on Long Island. The rest of the story is not that pretty. My mother in law died after two prolonged bouts with cancer and a few years later, his eldest daughter had to choose the day that she was ready to die from a long struggle with Cystic Fibrosis. I don't think he ever recovered from those blows. He lived out the rest of his life in one of those nondescript communities in Florida, descending ever more into his idiosyncrasies but traveling back and forth to his family in Germany and happy in a way that only stasis can bring.
He was a man that never really let you glimpse his inner psyche, perhaps partly due to his Teutonic upbringing and part as a survival buffer from the horrors he had witnessed. I wish I had know him better, I wish he had let any of us in.