“It is not the strength of the body that counts, but the strength of the spirit….” J.R.R Tolkien
I just returned from a ten day trip to Germany. I had no idea how important this trip was going to be to me when I first booked it. I love to teach and I work with a number of gyms in the southern part of Germany. So it just made sense to extend my trip out from the first course I taught and to go visit them all and spend time with them. I wanted to get to learn their communities and meet the faces I see on social media that are members of what we call our Club.
But the week before I left I found out something that would change this trip for me forever.
You see I have number of tattoos. Most people will judge a book by its cover even though your not suppose to. I’ve been told that you should know what your getting yourself into when you walk into my gym and see the coach has two full size pinups girls tattooed on his calves. Well I wouldn’t get them if I didn’t find things like that funny or amusing. All my tattoos have a story and thats important to me. Everything from my wrists to my back have some kind of meaning to me.
But the tattoo on the outside of left forearms means the most to me.
It’s a classic style American Eagle and at first glance you’d assume it just flows with the rest of them. And yes I do like a classic style of tattoo but that isn’t the reason that eagle is inked into my skin. It has so much meaning to me that when that eagle and this trip crossed paths it seemed to me like what a lot of people would call fate.
I got that particular piece like some of the other during a hard time in my life. Things were bad and I actually had taken myself back to where my parents were from in Iowa. My grandma (whom we all called Nano) stilled lived in the house my Ma grew up in and we’d visit it every summer growing up. Nano was amazing to be around and just her presence made everything feel right in the world. But I knew once I went back to the world she wouldn’t be there and my problems still would be. So there was someone I needed to talk to, I needed to talk to my Pa.
Pa was what we called my Grandpa and he was the patriarch of our family. I don’t use the term lightly and if you know me I make a kicking motion anytime I use 10 dollar words and says “who needs them.” But thats what Pa was. He was the head of our family and we all loved and respected him above all else.
When he passed away much like when my Nano left us I spoke for my brothers and myself at the funeral. Some people say I’m good with words and public speaking is a gift my Mother ingrained in me as a child. But it was more the fact I could see my brothers grief and I wanted to speak for all of us cause I felt I could get the words out before breaking down.
You see even now Pa is always with all of us. Even later in his life when his sight left him he would still swing dance with Nano at wedding and travel to Seattle to sit and at me and my brother wrestling matches and football games. He just wanted to be there for us. I learned what family means from my Pa.
But when I went back to Iowa that year Pa wasn’t there to talk to, but I needed to speak to him. So I told Nano the following afternoon I was going to visit him. The cemetery was just down the street from the house we spent our summers at and we actually use to go play there when we were kids. I still remember the day we laid Pa to rest. It was full honors. A 21 gun salute and the Air Force did a fly over performing a missing man formation for him. Everyone loved and respected Pa, everyone.
Now that Nano isn’t here to read this I’ll admit I grabbed a case of beer and went to the cemetery that day. I stood in the snow and talked to Pa. I talked about life and what was wrong and how I wished he was there. We all had a bond with Pa so I can’t say mine was closer then anyone else’s. He loved us all, he loved his family, I just needed him. But as I stood there talking out my problems I began to feel better. I knew he was with me even if he wasn’t there in front of me. And I had one of those moments where things just made sense. Once I had said my goodbye I went back to Nano’s and took her out to dinner. When we got home we watched tv and then when we were getting ready to go to bed I turned to her and said, “I’m going to Iowa City in the morning, I’ll be back for dinner.”
In the morning I got in my car and drove into town. I walked the streets I’d walked with my family those Summers in the cold snow and just wandered looking for a tattoo shop. I had no idea where one was and I didn’t care I just walked and walked. This is not how I would recommend picking a shop to get a tattoo mind you but it made sense to just walk until I found one. And as I started to get frustrated in my search I happen to look at the ground and see something with an add on it for a shop on it. I bent down to pick it up and I realized the address was literally right above me in the second story of the building I was in front of, Sting Rays, the name alone could have sold me.
I walked up to the shop and to the front desk. “I’d like to get on the books for an classic American Eagle today.”
Oddly enough the guy scratched his head. “Man no one here does classic.” This should have been a sign to leave the shop honestly. “But hey let me call Sting Ray he’s the owner he does classic.” Now we were getting somewhere. When the owner arrived Sting Ray was everything you could have imaged in an old tattoo artist. He whipped up a quick image with a banner like I requested and before I knew it I was in the seat.
“We don’t get to many request for eagles anymore.” I found this very odd, but whatever.
He went about working on my arm and at one point said he needed a smoke break, I just nodded I was use to this from guy back in Seattle. Except Sting Ray just leaned back in his seat and lit one up, yup this place was awesome. While we were sitting there he asked me.
“Aren’t you a little young to be getting “7-20-1944” on your arm. I just nodded,and then I told him.”
“7-20-1984 is my birthday and 40 years prior to that my Grandpa was shot down over Germany during the War.”
You see Pa loved us all. But that date was special, the day I was born was the anniveray of Pa surviving jumping out of his B-17 after taking heavy fire over Chemnitz. This whole story could be about that epic day. Pa dodged falling debris and another plane while he drifted to earth. This was after being pinned against the open door of the plane and being unable to jump as the plane began to go down. Prior to that the story of the battle they engaged in before taking to many hits and losing control of the plane still give me chills. I didn’t only know this man he was my Grandfather.
Pa was captured after slamming into a roof in Chemnitz. Being an officer he was interrogated repeatedly before finally being placed in a prison camp. Pa kept a log of everything that happened to his crew and a diary as well on toilet paper during his time in the camp. This would go on to be know as “The Toilet Paper Diary” and has actually been published in a book called “Only the least of me is Hostage.” This book is still for sale and if you want to read about the man John Butler was during that time you can pick up a copy and read the entire story.
I loved Pa, and everyone in my family had a connection to this so amazing man. When we lost him there was a big hole. It was hard to not have him there but he is always with us in our hearts and minds.
The week before my departure my Ma said I should go visit the crash site. I told here it could be on the other side of the country for all I knew and I didn’t know if I’d be able to make it. So we researched and my breath was literally taken away when I saw that Chemnitz was only three hours from where I would be staying most of my trip.
I knew nothing on earth would stop me from getting there.
With he help of my family and friends I set aside a day to take the train to Chemnitz and be in place that held so much meaning. It was important and I had to do it. It felt like fate was calling me there.
Last Thursday I undertook that journey. The trip itself was beyond hectic and included missed trains, sprinting though the streets of Nuremberg and undertaking some challenges that would make it that much more rewarding to me.
After 4 hours of travel by train I arrived in Chemnitz. The whole train ride there I looked out the window and imaged it all. I read the documents of it all that my aunt had sent me and I read Pa’s words from the diary. When I stepped off that train and looked into the sky where my Grandfather had flown I never felt so connected to him or a place in my life.
I walked the streets until I found the perfect bar. It was in an old castle style building and was very much what I had pictured the whole trip in my head. I sat down at the bar, pulled out a picture I had carried with me the whole trip of Pa and his crew set it down and just looked at it. The bartender came up to me and I asked for glass of whiskey. When she place it down I just sat and looked at it and the man I knew in the picture.
With a heavy but happy and full heart I lifted the glass and toasted the man I wished I could be more like every day of my life.
I finished my drink, paid and began my trip back to meet a friend who had driven three hours to come pick me up. As I walked I thought about Pa and I thought about the last time I talked to him.
The story brought tears to my eyes as I made my trip on the cold streets of Chemnitz. I pulled my beanie down low over my face unashamed of the tear but not wanting to draw any attention. This was my time in a special place and I wanted that time to remember Pa.
In our last conversation I had visited Pa at the nursing home down the street from the house he had lived in with Nano and raised his daughters and taught me about life and what a real man was. At this point life was trying to steal him away from us and sometimes he had trouble remembering things. But that day we talked. He told me stories like he use to and I sat and listened. At the end of our talk he simply turned to me and said, “I’m tired now, my grandson is going to come visit me can you let him know I’m sleeping.”
To say this broke my heart would be a lie. I had gotten to stand there and talk with him. I had gotten to hear stories like I use to and I was able to be with my Pa. That will always stay with me and I will always remember him as he was and the man he was. Last week I got to stand where he had survived his plane being shot down. I got to be somewhere very important somewhere he would start his own journey and make his way back home and raise a family. He’d have a daughter with hair so blonde it looked white who would give birth to her 3rd son on 7-20-1984, 40 years after that fateful day.
In my eulogy at his funeral one thing I said that still stand out was the following. “Pa would come and watch me wrestle every year. And even though I knew he couldn’t see me I knew he watching me.”
Pa is always watching over all of us. He’s in our hearts and in our minds. You keep the people you love alive there and nothing can ever take that away. Last week I got to be in a special place and remember one thing, he may have been my grandfather but he was so much more then that. And I can honestly say one thing that makes me proud in life.
I knew John Butler…
Posted by: Z