The Final Trench

October 11, 2010
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I was eight years old. The memory of that balmy spring morning slowly fades. Regardless, the
turbulent whoosh of traffic and the uncertainty I felt surrounded by an unfamiliar city remain
etched in my mind. Queens, New York. Grandma’s house; my own little slice of the Big Apple.

After a series of half-hearted hugs and kisses, I couldn’t wait to go exploring. The stairway
leading to an unfinished basement was a time machine. Within the dim, time-worn lighting encased by
3’ think cement walls my grandfather built himself, a sea of my father’s once treasured toys; circa 1965.
After a brief exhibition, rummaging through empty desk drawers and yellowed photographs, I trotted
upstairs. With a crooked-toothed smile across my face, I presented to my family two unnervingly
realistic toy guns.

“Put those down!” My mother said, “Violence should not be encouraged like that…weapons are
a dangerous thing!

I carried on, reluctantly making my way back to the stairs. My smile vanished.

“Not so fast. Let the boy be a boy! C’mon Jay. We’ll play army. I’ll be the Germans, you’re the

A heavy-set man in his mid-seventies let me pick my favorite of the two, and with a gleam in his
eye, gently took the other from my hands. His thick, short-cropped white hair, his yellow woolen
sweater vests. I remember the scene vividly.

“Me and my German buddies have dug in a trench,” he whispered for dramatic effect. “You’ve
got to find a way around; you’ve got to push ahead!” With that said, my Uncle Jerry set up his post on
the living room couch, scanning my grandmother’s prized French provincial furniture for Americans
through his plastic sights.

For hours I hid under corner table boulders and lobbed sock grenades at my Great Uncle Jerry,
who stayed on that sofa without a single complaint. He occasionally pulled his mock trigger shouting
“Darn, I missed again!” As I giggled and darted away. The imagination of a child is remarkable. My
grandma’s modest living room on 164th street had become war-torn Europe on the German front.
Thanks to my uncle’s hunger-influenced surrender, I had successfully won a war that had been over long
before I was born.

Five years later, a nurse escorts my family and I down a whitewash linoleum hallway. I
remember helpless faces of all ages peering out their open hospital room doors, awaiting the arrival of a
loved one, a child, a miracle. As the smell of antiseptics and rubber gloves set in, I found myself standing
before my uncle lying in a near comatose state on a hospital bed. The man had survived war,
depression and despair. At last, it was a mere irregular cancer cell that took him from me. With an air
tube aiding his breathing and a heart rate monitor clipped to his finger, he wasn’t the Uncle Jerry I knew.
I held his hand and remembered our trips to the toy store, watching his favorite black and white movies,
and that little toy gun. The nurse said he could hear me, but could not reply. He could still move his
hands despite loss of control over the rest of his body. I held his hand tight, and he, with all the effort in
the world, was able to hold mine.

The heart monitor stopped. My uncle had taken off the clip on his finger. He was frustrated and
in pain; this was the only freedom he had left. My father reattached the device, only to find it off again
in a matter of minutes. He was only a shell of what once was, but his stubborn, World War veteran
attitude still shone bright.

“Uncle Jerry?” I leaned into his ear. Maybe he’ll listen to me. “Please keep it on...I know it’s
annoying. I know you’re in pain, but it’s helping the doctors keep you with us! I don’t want you to go,
can you hear me?”

No reply. My eyes welled up and my mother put her arm around me. Then, with a timid grunt
and some hesitation, my Uncle Jerry put the clip back on his finger. We stayed for several more hours,
the heart monitor clicked away like a metronome. It may have pained him to keep it on, but he’d kept it
on because it gave me comfort. He gave me hope.

A phone call from the hospital several days later confirmed my Uncles passing due to
esophageal cancer and pneumonia. Something stuck with me that day that will never be forgotten; my
uncle gave me hope in his final hour because his caring conquered his pain. Without saying a single
word, my Uncle Jerry taught me at a young age that making personal sacrifices to benefit others can
truly change a life. I don’t fully recall the year 2005. I don’t remember what my favorite book was or the
endless summer proceeding the sixth grade, but I do remember that heart monitor and my uncle’s
actions. I feel as he passed on a duty to me that day, to make the most out of this life not just for
myself, but for my community.

After my grandmother’s passing shortly after, the house her father built was sold off, and 164th
street is now only a fond memory. Those toy guns lay broken in a cardboard box. Those sock grenades
now too small for my feet. However, the spirit my uncle passed on to me that day has no expiration. I
aim to acquire an education that will enable me to do great things, and as my uncle would say, “keep
pushing ahead to that final trench.”

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