My Grandfather's War

The following is a revision of a tribute I wrote on this day back in 2013. On this, what would have been my Grandfather's 96th birthday, I remember his stories.

In 1919, my maternal grandfather, Ektor Tsacoumarcos, was born in Maine to Greek immigrant parents. He had been conceived in the now-far-away land of Greece, but had never seen it with his own eyes. He was the first of his brothers to be born in America and the first to be formally educated. It was in these schools that his name was changed to Hector Chacamaty.

In his early 20's, World War II tore apart the continent of his conception - and the Chacamaty brothers answered the call. James, Hector's older brother, joined the OSS despite his lack of formal education. Hector joined the Army - and fought as a Private in Northern Italy against Mussolini's fascist forces as an ammunitions runner and fuse setter. When he was crippled by shrapnel, Hector was transported via hospital ship to Tunisia, where he spent two months recuperating in the arms of prostitutes and refusing a Purple Heart. Each night, he would steal away the camp's food refuse and leave it on the edge of the base for the locals - who he had noticed were starving. He was 24 years old. Greece was just across the water. But America was calling.

In 1945, Corporal Hector Chacamaty stormed the beaches of France on D-Day alongside his six-man munitions platoon. He operated as a member of the counteroffensive against Germany, pushing the Nazis out of France. He can be easily identified in those old TIME LIFE specials, because he wore his helmet cocked to one side. Once they had crossed into Southern Germany, Hector and his fellow soldiers were tasked with the liberation of a Nazi civilian camp - after the Red Cross had negotiated Nazi surrender. As they walked into the camp, it became clear that this was not simply a civilian camp. This was Dachau.

Before the last year of his life, he barely ever spoke about the war, but my grandfather did tell me one story with regularity. It was this:

"So, we liberated this castle. Nazi count or someone, he didn't want to come out, so we had to starve him out. We occupied the town below, which wasn't really too friendly, but we needed to be there, so better make the most of it. So me and some of the boys, we go down to the local tavern. We order a beer. Slide over a couple dollars for the guy's trouble. But he just frowns and says:

'No dollars. Deutsche Marks.'

And we try again, we slide the dollars over to him, cause we don't have any Deutsche Marks, right? But still he refuses. 

'No dollars. Deutsche Marks.' 'No dollars. Deutsche Marks.'

So we go down the street to the local bank. We drop some charges in the vault, which has plenty of this count's money. We take stacks of it, drop as many Marks on this guy's bar as we possibly can. The guy's probably never seen so much money in his life. And so we all say it together:

'No dollars. Deutsche Marks!'

And we have ourselves a drink with the guy."

Hector Chacamaty came home. He raised a family, including an incredible free-thinking daughter who would become my mother. He worked as a gallery owner, an artist and a cabbie. He set an example. And by my age, he had lived through the Second World War in Italy, Africa, France, and Germany. The one place it didn't take him was Greece... but it did take him home.

And while he was many things to many people, I will remember my grandfather as an old-fashioned man of decency. A guy who taught me how to watch football but not be a dick to the other team. A guy who would argue the devil's perspective to anyone who thought themselves righteous. A man who regularly referred to his life as "bonus time," neither fearing nor fretting inevitability. A calming, warm presence in any room he entered.

I am energetic, breathless, anxious, and weird - but he saw himself in me and never let me forget. I will endeavor my entire life to be the kind of man he was.

Happy birthday, Baba.