Seeing Private Everyman

Steve Edwards searches for the hidden truths in the public and private sacrifices his granddad made serving in World War II.

Steve Edwards | Longreads | July 2017 | 16 minutes (4,482 words)

When my wife was first pregnant with our son, it startled me to think that the life we were living before his arrival would be a mystery to him, part of some dim and distant past. All he would have were our stories. And because we lived far from our respective families, stories would be almost all he would have of them, too. It may have been first-time father jitters, but it felt important that he know something of his people and what we were all about. Or maybe I just imagined him a captive audience to whom I could tell stories my wife had already heard a thousand times.

My family’s big story was my grandfather’s brush with fame in Life magazine. During World War II and beyond, he was Life’s Private Everyman — Charles E. Teed of Effingham, Illinois, a figure meant to typify selectees in the war effort. On March 16, 1942, he graced the cover and was profiled in a long feature article. In 1961, he appeared alongside the 20th century’s most notable celebrities in Life’s 25th-anniversary issue. There’s Marilyn Monroe on one page. There’s Granddad on another. By Life’s estimation, “victory over the common enemy” depended upon Granddad and men like him, and whether, when the time came — in a line paraphrased from War and Peace — they shouted “‘Hurrah!’ or “‘We are lost!’” I was 10 when he died. Nearly everything I know about his life, I learned from the magazine.

I remember the night a copy of that magazine was brought to the dinner table. The dishes had all been swept away and it was placed before me. I was instructed in the careful turning of its pages so as not to rip them.

At first, I didn’t understand. The Granddad I knew, then in his late 50s and early 60s, wasn’t anybody famous. He shot pool, taught us pinochle, and took us fishing. He worked in a factory and often came home exhausted at night. “I’m sorry, honey,” he’d sometimes say to my brother and me when requests to shoot pool came down in the after-dinner hours, “I’m too tired.” But there he was on the cover, a skinny John Wayne.

He’d been photographed from below, solitary, outlined only in sky, his eyes set on something in the middle distance. He wore a field jacket and gloves. The bayonet on his rifle stabbed into a corner of the frame. In the photographs inside the magazine, he looked like one of my miniature plastic Army men come to life. He sprinted through the woods out on maneuvers; scrubbed canvas puttees and cartridge belts; swept up on KP. And there were other pictures, earlier ones, which my great-grandmother had supplied from home: Granddad at 6 in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, and later, in the backyard, playing Cowboys and Indians. In a picture of his sixth grade class, he stood in the back row, smiling and self-possessed, described by Life as the “tallest and best-looking boy” of the bunch. And how proud he seemed at 16 and already 6-foot-2, dressed in his Sunday finest — a white collar shirt, a pair of high-waisted slacks cinched tight by a belt — on a front-porch step beside his grinning and equally handsome 6-foot-6 father.

It was a revelation to see him so young. It was a revelation, too, to imagine that people all around the country — millions of them — had looked upon these same images. When his issue first hit newsstands, Pearl Harbor had happened but we were still several months away from any major land battle. It was a time of deep uncertainty. The lives of those willing to sacrifice themselves for the country were stories yet to be written.

It was a time of deep uncertainty. The lives of those willing to sacrifice themselves for the country were stories yet to be written.

For reasons even he never knew, Life chose Granddad to represent those possibilities. Maybe it was his good looks. Maybe he was just in the right place at the right time. Regardless, there he was, an icon of the everyman.

Hope writ large.

After that night at the dinner table, I don’t think I ever looked at him the same. Though my understanding of the war was incomplete, only a child’s understanding, I felt great pride that he had been someone our country turned to for hope. And I knew that appearing on the cover of Life meant he was anything but ordinary. And if the magazine changed the way I saw him, it also changed the way I saw myself. Maybe there was something brave in me. Maybe I could give people hope. The feeling was that Granddad mattered, and that I could matter, too. And if I could pass along anything to my son, it would be that.

* * *

So much of what we think we know about each other — even the people we love — is predicated on what we don’t know. Or can’t know. Or what is kept from us as children for our own good. On nights Granddad wasn’t too tired for a game of pool, I remember watching him hover silent as a shark around the table in his basement, chalking his cue and lining up shot after shot and slamming them home. Other nights he’d pull out his projector and show clips of 8 mm film he’d taken at the go-kart races at the fairgrounds, or some scene from a fishing trip out at Lake Sara. In my earliest memories, it’s the 4th of July and I’m sitting atop an old-fashioned oak-barrel ice cream maker while he turns the crank. Around us are friends and family with sweating cans of Coors, talking and laughing and telling stories, their enormous Oldsmobiles and Buicks parked at odd angles down the street. I remember his gentleness in those moments, the care he took teaching me how to hold a pool cue, how to aim and think about angles when making a bank shot. The only time I ever heard an edge creep into his voice was a night the news showed images of the famine in Ethiopia. Granny saw the children’s bloated stomachs and got a pained looked on her face and told him to turn it off. “This is what’s happening,” he hissed. “You have to look.”

From my vantage as a 43-year-old looking back, I’m tempted to say that the news footage triggered the PTSD from which he must surely have suffered. Something in how he scowled at the television so intently — his laser-like focus on it — betrayed a nervous system that had trained itself to be ever-vigilant for signs of trauma.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


Against the innocence of my childhood memories, it takes an act of imagination to consider the scope and severity of the suffering Granddad endured. The picture of his father and him so proud on that porch step was taken around 1936, in the heart of the Great Depression. A little over three years later, his father — a workman for the Illinois Central Railroad — was hit and killed by a freight train, his lanky 6-foot-6 frame severed at the waist. Granddad had just graduated high school, his whole future ahead of him.

In their profile, Life rendered his father’s death as part of Granddad’s backstory, a detail that testified to the humanity of ordinary selectees and that celebrated the American ethos of overcoming adversity by reinventing yourself. His father’s death wasn’t a tragedy but an opportunity. With an insurance payout and a settlement from the railroad, Granddad and my great-grandmother started a restaurant in downtown Effingham called the Heart Café. He put in grueling 17-hour days, bussing tables, manning the cash register, sweeping up. And it was at the Heart Café, in the depths of his loss, that he met Violet Kincaid — Granny — a dark-haired young woman from a nearby farm who took a waitress job. In a story my mother says isn’t true, or maybe only half true, Life wrote that Granny dropped a tray of dirty dishes on her first day: “Teed helped her pick up the pieces, they looked into each other’s eyes and it was all over for Teed.” Six weeks later they got engaged, and not long after, in July 1941, he was drafted into the army.

There is an almost irresistible romance to his story — from its tragic beginnings, to his sudden fame on the cover of Life, to the fear of death in battle that must have hovered in his mind like an ungraspable wisp of steam.

And those starkly beautiful black-and-white Life photographs only served to amplify the drama and spectacle.

But the reality of war was that in the course of his 27 months as a combat soldier in the infantry, Granddad had seen “a lot of things die.” That’s how he described it to Life editors in an interview for the 25th-anniversary issue in 1961. In Morocco, he’d stormed the docks at Safi under sniper fire, and later marched 250 miles across the desert to Port Lyautey. In Sicily, he led pack mules up mountains so steep the mules sometimes fell off. Outside St. Lô, France — a city Allied bombs reduced to rubble — he was shot in the chest and crawled under an apple tree to die. Luckily for him (and me) a field guide found him.

He told Life he remembered thinking that “the orchard and the clouds were the last things [he] was going to see.”

Instead he spent the next two years in a hospital. In his absence from Effingham, The Heart went under and so his first job upon arriving home was racking billiards at a bar. He and Granny saved up and started a ma-and-pop grocery, only to see it run out of business when national chains swooped in. He taught himself TV repair, started a shop out of his home. When that was no longer profitable he took a line job at a factory.

All his life he worked and scraped by and found a way to provide. He answered his country’s call for sacrifice and never quit on his family and embodied every bit of the rugged selflessness of a John Wayne war flick. His private life, however, would have been more morally complicated. No matter how selflessly he gave himself after the war, he still had to live with the things he’d done to survive it. And as such, despite millions of people having come to know him from his photographs in Life, he may have felt invisible.

And as such, despite millions of people having come to know him from his photographs in Life, he may have felt invisible.

In a 1943 column about how war changed soldiers like Granddad, who’d spent years on the front lines, the famous World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote that: “The most vivid change is the casual and workshop manner in which they now talk about killing. They have made the psychological transition from the normal belief that taking human life is sinful, over to a new professional outlook where killing is a craft. To them now there is nothing morally wrong about killing. In fact it is an admirable thing.” I don’t believe — can’t believe — becoming a professional at killing is something any veteran walks away from easily or without harm. I think Granddad would have wanted to protect us, his family, from the trauma he knew. He would have wanted to protect himself from the pain of our knowing. But how often the dead, friend and enemy alike, must have sat in the room with us, their ghosts crowding the card table while we bid for trump in games of pinochle. While 8 mm films flickered on a screen in the basement. While I sat atop an ice cream maker and Granddad turned the crank some long-lost 4th of July.

I remember one night — it must have been a year or two before he died — he came into my bedroom with a gift. It was a small framed black-and-white picture of him at 16. In the photograph his hair was slick and black, his cheeks tinted a rosy pink. He held out the picture and said he thought I might like to have it for my desk.

Something about the moment overwhelmed me. I didn’t know what to make of such a gift. And I refused to accept it.

He nodded and quietly left, taking the picture with him. The next morning I had a change of heart and tried to tell him I wanted it after all but the words failed me. He packed the picture into his suitcase. I never saw it again.

In the hard light of morning, maybe giving me a picture of himself felt too much like vanity. Maybe he realized that his memories from 16 — before his father was killed, before the war came along and changed everything — would be lost on an ’80s kid like me. There is no salvaging the past, no storing it up in someone else for safe keeping. Maybe a man who killed in war in order to live should have known better than to be sentimental. But I think about what it says about his heart, and maybe all hearts, that he wanted me to know him. That after years of hard knocks, some part of him remained tender enough to be hurt by a child.

One thing I’ve learned as a writer is that the stories inside us — especially the ones that hurt — have to come out. Whatever the cost of telling them, the cost of holding onto them is greater. As such, I think the courage it took Granddad to go to war had a twin in the courage it took him to examine his life afterward, and to offer its fractures for the world to see. When Life contacted him in 1960, wanting to catch up with “Private Everyman” for the magazine’s 25th-anniversary special double issue, he could have said no. Instead, he agreed to be photographed over the course of a whirlwind two-week trip that took him from Effingham to Fort Bragg, Normandy, Casablanca, Palermo, New York City, and back — the places the war had taken him 15 years before. Life billed the story “an adventure in time as well as a journey through space.”

On each leg of the trip, elaborate “re-creation” photos — pictures meant to invoke Granddad’s experiences in the war — were staged. In one shot, taken in France, he and some soldiers from a nearby Army post flank a crack-filled farmhouse, rifles drawn. In another, in the mountains of Sicily, he squats beside a pack mule, the white slash of a cigarette in his mouth. Alongside the “re-creation” shots are shots of the man he’d become — the 40-year-old husband and father hammering a sign for his TV repair shop in the front yard; the laconic veteran reading names on the white stone crosses in the cemetery at Omaha Beach.

In one man lived the other.

Of all the images of Granddad to have appeared in Life, the shots from November 1960 are the most personally affecting to me. For one, he looks more like the man I remember from when I was kid. For another, there’s something in his countenance — a flintiness and melancholy — that suggests an incalculable depth of hurt.

It’s there, too, in the quotes Life editors lifted from their interview with him to serve as captions for the pictures. Under the shot of the crack-filled farmhouse in France, Granddad says: You never could tell about those broken-up farmyard buildings in Normandy. You could be running into a sniper there or a booby trap or, on the other hand, you might get real lucky and find a keg of Calvados. I guess there’s only one thing you can say about war after you get to know something about it, and that is it’s rough. The circumspection and carefulness of his talk — and the euphemism of war as “rough” — speaks to the unspeakable.

And to that I would only add that photographs like Granddad’s, in simultaneously concealing as much as they reveal, testify to a fundamental truth of being human: We live by illusions. We curate our lives like stories in a magazine.

Some part of me has always been drawn to hidden truths. Like a kid turning over a rock, I’m curious about what’s underneath the tidy and convenient narratives we create to smooth over the chaos of life. Staged to suggest Granddad’s memories of war, those “re-creation” shots fascinate me. They are conspicuously absent of blood and suffering and death. The stink of human misery doesn’t rise off the page like black smoke. At the same time, however, could even the most graphic of photographs capture that? And confronted with the true horrors of war, who could stand to look at them? Not the readers of Life, I don’t suppose. For them — and for me — the suggestion of war is as far as we can go. The rest is a journey of the imagination. “To take a photograph,” writes Susan Sontag in On Photography, “is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” And to that I would only add that photographs like Granddad’s, in simultaneously concealing as much as they reveal, testify to a fundamental truth of being human: We live by illusions. We curate our lives like stories in a magazine.

* * *

The photographer who accompanied Granddad on that 1960 “adventure in time” was a man named Leonard McCombe. Other Life photographers of the era — Frank Capra, Henri Cartier-Bresson, W. Eugene Smith — enjoy more name recognition, but McCombe’s photographs are every bit as incisive and iconic. He was born on the Isle of Mann, and at 19 had been embedded as a photographer with British troops in Normandy not far from where Granddad was shot. The trip was something of a return for him, too.

Several years ago, I had a brief email exchange with McCombe. He had retired from photography and now owned an apple orchard on Long Island. Having heard from an online connection that I was looking for information about his trip with Granddad, he wrote to me out of the blue:

Dear Mr. Edwards,

I am now in my late eighties, and I don’t do any interviews. My memory is not perfect, but I could answer a few questions by email. I was sent by the editors of Life about fifty years ago to do a story on your grandfather. My job was to get a picture story and I did not make any notes. Remembrance of the past was the theme of the story.

Sincerely,
Leonard McCombe

I wrote back immediately, saying I was simply curious what he might remember and whether he had any stories to share. Two weeks later, a page of McCombe’s remembrances arrived via email. He remembered Granddad’s backstory of growing up poor during the Depression, and losing his dad; starting a restaurant with my great-grandmother; and meeting a “pretty waitress” (Granny) and getting married quick. He remembered that “one thing [Granddad] liked in the army was marching with the band,” because “he felt for the first time like one of the boys.” He told me about shots he’d made in Effingham, and how from there they traveled to Fort Bragg and Normandy, where Granddad had landed at Utah Beach on D-Day Plus 4. “Chuck remembered fighting in the hedgerows,” McCombe wrote, “and securing abandoned farmhouses with landmines going off, booby-traps, and snipers in the orchards.” After Normandy it was on to Morocco and to Sicily, where McCombe said he made his best shots — photographs of Granddad in “the high mountains with mules carrying munitions and food supplies to the troops.”

I read and reread the email, savoring even the smallest fragments of story. Like the day they had lunch with an innkeeper at the Lyon D’Or, a small hotel in Bayeux, and listened as she told about being awoken in the night during the initial D-Day bombardment. Or how, during one of the “re-creation” photo sessions, the local soldiers they brought in had set off so many smoke bombs McCombe feared a visit from the police.

The stories McCombe shared brought the trip to life in a way the photographs alone couldn’t. Beneath the images’ glossy surfaces were the sacrifices he and Granddad had made to get them. The conscious choice to look.

In one sliver of a story, McCombe mentioned that their flight from Paris to Casablanca had been full of German tourists. The irony wasn’t lost on me. In the days prior, Granddad had been photographed wandering Utah Beach looking at remnants of the big German guns that fired upon him. He stood in an orchard like the one where a sniper put a bullet in his chest. Only 15 years had passed since he’d crawled under that apple tree to die. No time at all. The voices of those German tourists must have chilled his blood.

Life wrote that for Granddad “the slow summoning up of memory was always a poignant experience, sometimes tender, often painful. … Most of those who were there with him are long since vanished into the past.” And now that he has long since vanished, I marvel at his willingness to participate in that summoning.

What compelled him to do it? Did he want to test himself? Did he feel some kind of obligation to Life’s readership?

I can only speculate about his motivations. I know as much about Granddad’s private thoughts and feelings as I do about the circumstances that landed him on the cover of Life in the first place. But against everything I can’t know stands a simple fact: He was there. One of the first “re-creation” photographs of the trip — a shot that never made it into the magazine but that I discovered years later in an online archive — boldly underscores the seriousness of his commitment. In the picture, a group of men at the railroad yards stand over a body that’s been covered by a blanket. One man has his hand on his head as though in shock. The image is composed so that a nearby freighter’s boxcars crowd out the entire right side of the frame. Foregrounded on the left and taking up nearly as much space, his back to the camera, Granddad looks on. He’s dressed in clothes he might have worn at 19 — a denim jacket, a wool cap with earflaps. He and Leonard McCombe, on maybe the first day of their trip around the world and back, had staged the scene of his father’s tragic death. When I look at the picture, I don’t see the picture. I smell pitch oozing from railroad ties. I feel the heat and rumble of the freighter’s big engine. No one else could have known what he felt standing there. Maybe that was reason enough to want to tell the story.

In 1944, after he’d been shot, Granddad thought the last things he was going to see were the clouds and the sky. Forty years later, dying of lung cancer in the Veterans’ Administration hospital in Danville, Illinois, the thought became a kind of wish. After chemo and surgery, talk had turned to him coming home. Granny bought a chair and a beach umbrella so he could sit in the backyard and listen to birds and watch the clouds. I imagined him getting better, stronger, putting on weight, not coughing anymore, his hair growing back, his arm around my shoulders some afternoon at Lake Shelbyville fishing for black crappie. But the night he got the all clear, the relief was too much. Instead of coming home, he died in his sleep.

At 10 years old, nothing had ever scared me as much as walking into his hospital room and seeing him so frail. My brother and I stood by his bed, stunned, just looking at him and trying not to cry. He slowly pulled the oxygen tube from his nostrils and put a thumb over the vents and beckoned my brother to come close.

When my brother leaned in, Granddad lifted his thumb from the tube and blasted him in the face with the cold air.

Or I should say he tried to blast him with cold air. His movements were too slow and shaky to really make it happen. And my brother only pretended to be surprised. But that was Granddad — he didn’t want us to be afraid.

The better story from his last days was one I learned later, secondhand from my mother. Upon Granddad’s arrival at the VA, word somehow got out that Private Everyman, the soldier featured in those old Life magazines, had been admitted. In their wheelchairs and hospital gowns, people began stopping by to pay their respects. They struck up conversations with him in the day room and on the elevator. They remembered him.

According to my mother, Granddad delighted in being recognized. She said that when they all got to talking he was like a king holding court. These years later it strikes me that in Granddad’s photographs in Life, his fellow vets had seen themselves, their triumphs and struggles. They had felt acknowledged by the witness he bore. And it occurs to me, too, that in chatting him up in the VA and telling him their stories from the war years, they acknowledged him. The tremendous gift of that stops me cold. No one in the world escapes from trauma and tragedy — it’s coming for us all. But in sharing our stories, we can see and be seen.

My son is nearly nine now, around the age I was when I first read about Granddad in Life. He likes legends of knights and castles and dragons. Lately he’s been putting together the story of how his mom and I met, and coming to terms with the puzzling fact that we were once children ourselves. One of these nights, after we’ve finished dinner and cleaned up the dishes, I’ll bring out one of Granddad’s copies of Life and instruct him in the careful turning of its pages. I’ll tell him everything I can about the people in the pictures. I’ll try to answer any question that might spring to mind — about the war, or why people are always fighting. I don’t know what it will mean to him, if anything. Maybe for him the story will be how meaningful it all was to me. Or maybe it will blur and fade, one more dog-eared photograph waiting to be discovered in memory’s dusty attic. Anything is possible. We live in a little town in Massachusetts, surrounded by orchards like the one in France where Granddad nearly died. Someday years from now my son may even realize why, when we’re out driving, I always point out pretty clouds in the sky.

***

Steve Edwards is author of Breaking into the Backcountry, a memoir of his time as the caretaker of a wilderness homestead in southern Oregon. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife and son.

***

Editor: Krista Stevens

Copy editor: Jacob Gross

Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel