The Quiet American

Claire married late. In those days, if a gal hadn’t found a husband by the time she was in her mid-twenties, people thought she was probably destined for spinsterhood. But sometimes things happen for a reason.

Claire lived with her parents in Morristown. Harold was from Newark, practically a world away. In the early part of the twentieth century, there were half a million people living in Newark. It was one of the bigger cities going, a bustling metropolis filled with skyscrapers and industry. Morristown was a small town by comparison, not quite sleepy but not too lively either.

Claire and Harold found each other nonetheless.

Claire’s parents were glad she’d found someone, but her two brothers were merciless. They were typical Irish, loud-mouthed and sharp-tongued. Harold made an easy target for their ribbing. He was German—quiet, stubborn, taciturn. Claire’s brothers gave him a real hard time. He just sat there and took it all in.

It was never clear whether Harold was born quiet or if the war had done it to him. Like everyone who goes to war, he’d seen some things.

He’d had been on a destroyer minesweeper in the Pacific. Although he was just a regular sailor, he’d taken to hanging around the ship’s radio shack. He was a handy guy and made friends with the operators and electricians who ran the communications equipment. Radar was then a new technology and Harold was eager to learn how it worked. Recognizing a fellow tinkerer, the guys happily showed him how the ship’s ears were wired.

Harold couldn’t have been happier. He just sat there and took it all in.

The ship had seen some fighting, but not much. Then came Iwo Jima. The radio shack took a direct hit from a Japanese kamikaze. All Harold’s buddies were wiped out in an instant. The transmitters and receivers were badly damaged. It was total chaos. Without its ears, the ship was a sitting duck.

Amid the devastation, Harold was able to rig up the wires so the ship could keep fighting. From his perch in the radio tower, he saw the marines raise the flag on Mount Suribachi.

After the war, Harold vowed never to go near the ocean again. He wanted a sleepy small-town existence. He met Claire and got a job as a shop teacher. They raised their kids in bucolic Morris Plains. Far from the bustle of Newark and the chaos of Iwo Jima, Harold settled into the quiet life that so many of his generation never had the opportunity to know.

Word got out that he was one of those guys that could fix things. Neighbors would call on him with their mechanical problems. Family members would have Harold and Claire over to dinner just so he could run upstairs and have a look at the leaky shower head or the door knob that didn’t seem to work properly.

Ever the tinkerer, he built a working Wurlitzer pipe organ in his basement.

Once, when the kids were teenagers, they convinced Harold to come with them to the Jersey shore. They didn’t understand why he was so hung up about the ocean. This was the 1970s. World War II was ancient history. They practically had to drag him out of the car. He took one look at the waves and turned his back. “Still the same,” he said.

Harold Benz died last week, in his bed, at the ripe old age of 91. My Aunt Claire was with him to the end. They say the only ones who talk about war are the ones who never saw the real action. The ones who saw the real action never talk about it.

Harold never said a word.

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