At Thanksgiving dinner a few years ago, my grandfather, a Chicago-born businessman named Bud Ruby, shocked us all when he stood up to speak about World War II. A warm, good-humored man, Grandpa is always candid about his life, but my parents had warned me long ago not to ask about his army days. When Saving Private Ryan came out, I asked Grandpa if he planned to see it. “No,” he said. “I lived it.” That was all he had to say on the subject. So I clung to the precious nuggets dropped over the years—whispers of Germans with guns, something about a medal—and my imagination filled in the gaps.
But now, here he was, at the head of the dinner table, telling us how he stormed Utah Beach at Normandy on D-day plus one, June 7, 1944, with L Company, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 4th Division. All day, he said, he avoided bullets and bodies and fought his way inland. That night the soldiers dug foxholes and hid in the darkness. “It was around three in the morning when somebody lit a cigarette while a German plane was above us,” he said. “The plane came down and strafed the field for 15 or 20 minutes, killed quite a few people. I’m lying on my stomach, head in my hands, scared to death. Next morning, I took my helmet off, and there was a hole in it that hadn’t been there the night before. I found the bullet buried in the ground next to me.” Six nights later, his division was walking single-file in an abandoned street when two sniper shots whizzed toward them. One killed the soldier in front of him. The other killed the man behind him.
Before I could process any of this, my grandfather had moved on to the liberation of Paris and the thankful civilians who plied him with shots of Calvados. From there he took us to a grim, frostbitten battle in Hürtgen Forest near the German-Belgian border, where he found himself alone on the frontlines with enemy tanks approaching and directed artillery fire over his radio until the tanks turned back. He was awarded a Bronze Star. When America dropped the bomb on Hiroshima the following summer, he was undergoing amphibious training to prepare for the beach landing in Japan that never happened.
After the war, Grandpa tried to move on. “It took me almost a year to tell my wife and my parents anything,” he said. “I just couldn’t talk about it.” One day he was getting off a train near Michigan Avenue and Jackson Boulevard when a bus backfired. His first thought—gunfire!—made him throw his body to the ground. His second thought—get up and keep going—underscored the obvious: Life goes on. So he packed away the memories along with his medal and put them on the shelf until that Thanksgiving six decades later.
When he finally finished talking, I had a million questions. I asked none of them. I later found out that earlier that year, when France selected 100 Americans who had participated in the D-day landing and the liberation of France to receive its highest military decoration, the Legion of Honor, he was among them. He never bragged about it, not even when the French government flew him to Paris on the 60th anniversary of D-day. My parents had to tell me about the whole thing.
Grandpa turns 90 this month, and his entire family is coming to Chicago to celebrate. I understand why he chose that dinner to break his silence—an old man wondering how many days he’s got left—but I can’t stop thinking about that bullet hole in his helmet. “I was a very lucky man,” he said. Bud Ruby could’ve been just a name to me, a faded photo of another ancestor I never knew. Instead, he is a living, breathing man who my children will run across the room to greet when he walks in the door on his birthday. What could be luckier?
Photograph: Courtesy of the Ruby family