Christmas, 1993

The 75 year old hand that gestured was steady.  It belonged to a strong arm and chest still thick with muscle, but pain had crept into all his joints.  Movements that once were automatic now took great effort.  

“Don’t go back there.” Bob’s voice was gentle melodic and firm. “Its full of things that bite, sting or are poisonous.”

He was pointing to the woods behind his spacious one level home on Sewell’s point.  This thin peninsula juts into the Atlantic 100 miles north of Miami off Florida’s Treasure coast.  The treasure was once the loot of shipwrecked sailors. The treasure today is not off-shore. It is the land, a place of shelter that watches the sea and waits.

The shelter Bob sought was from memories of a time when he was a young man of German descent at war with Germany.  

The draft notice came Christmas day, 1940.  He was 22 then, older and more physically developed than most inductees. His basic training totaled six months, twice the normal amount because he was being trained for Special Forces. From Camp Breckinridge to Camp Forest, Tennessee, with one more year in the field, his preparation included demolition, mine laying, weapons and all military vehicles.

When he hit Omaha Beach he was a First Sergeant and section leader. It was the rank he maintained throughout the war.  The military tried to promote him but he refused as it would have required leaving his company of 184 men.

Through France, Belgium, Holland Luxembourg and finally Germany he walked across Europe, always up front where death was most near. Regulations limiting the number of days at the front were ignored. From the day the first foot was planted on French soil there would be no rest. Not then, not ever.  

The most remarkable thing in Bob Schulte’s life was that he was alive. 

” Ten times, there were ten times that I know of that I should have been killed.  Many times it was when I relaxed some. Once I went for a walk near an airstrip when I was tapped on the shoulder by a German soldier. He was turning himself in.  Another time I was resting at the edge of the the woods outside an evacuated German town when a bullet struck a tree one inch from my head.”

They didn’t always miss. Bob was wounded at Aachen, Pine, and on the line in Germany. He was in the hospital in LIege, Belgium when it exploded at 2:00 a.m.  The hospital was all but destroyed. Bob survived and was returned to his unit with his ribs every bit as broken as when he left it.

A bridge at Remagon hung at a 30 degree angle and was expected to fall as the Germans continued their artillery fire.  In six hours the combat engineers put a pontoon bridge across the river. The Quartermaster Corps, however, would not use it to bring critical supplies as the pontoon bridge was under constant fire.  It was Bob who would cross the bridge.  There were inches to spare on either side of the truck wheels. Halfway across Bob spotted an enemy plane bearing in on him.  He opened the door of the truck and with one hand still on the wheel he climbed outside.  He continued to drive as the waters raced below his dangling body and the plane came ever closer.  He was about to jump when the sky erupted. Saved by artillery he arrived at the other side.

Two thousand dead Russians, executed and left in piles were stumbled upon in Germany near war’s end.  So he began days of digging graves for hollow eyed, unnamed corpses. Rags dipped in gasoline wrapped across the face masked the smell of death.  

Civilian snipers are also the enemy, the generals said, so down main street his company went tossing grenades into what were once German homes and businesses.   Some of the dead, he believed, were children… 

When the war did end, Bob’s unit was declared by our government to be too dangerous to re-enter civilian life.  They were held on occupation duty and extensive debriefing.  The first day home Bob gathered all the letters that he had written to Geri, his wife, and burned them delivering them back to the hell from which they came.  

While the memories can not be so easily despatched, Bob found again the gentle loving man that was always at his core.  He carried on not with rage but with a lingering sadness beneath the smile and an appreciation that each moment alive is a blessing.  Each of the seven Schulte children have memories of crying at night with an illness or a nightmare.  All remember dad at their side, holding them, comforting them, fixing a magic potion to ease their pain.  He understood.

More than 50 years after he married Geri, Bob waited on her like a lovesick schoolboy. After cooking his specialty, potato pancakes, he refused help as he washed each dish and placed everything in order.

50 years after the war Bob went to the ocean or stayed up late to stare at the stars and contemplate the vastness of the universe.  He said, “All my life I’ve been thinking about the universe with no end. Everything here seems to have an end but the universe goes on forever.”

Sometimes he wondered what he would tell God if he met him face to face. His eyes cracked wider full of tears as he said, “I’d tell Him I did the best I could.”

Three bronze stars be damned, the most heroic thing he has done is maintain his ability to love… the people, the milky way, God and himself.  

As he walked back into the forbidden woods behind his home he passed by a gnarled old tree.  The mound at its feet was sawdust bits of itself returning to the earth.  Beside this tree was a poinsettia.  It was all green in the Florida sun except for the top where there was a star shaped cluster of brilliant red leaves. Why these leaves and no others?  Why not?