Not all peo­ple

Forward Magazine - - Veterans Day Special -

have a great story, even if they think they do. My 93-year-old un­cle, Sam Morrison, born Sam Meisel­man, had one: This al­ways wise­crack­ing Jewish World War II ski trooper vet­eran from the Bronx was an early mem­ber of the Army’s elite 10th Moun­tain Di­vi­sion that trained in Colorado.

In 1945, four months be­fore the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the 10th was ac­ti­vated and shipped off to Italy, where they drove the Ger­mans out from sev­eral strongholds. In do­ing so they faced gun­fire as well as grenades stuffed with white phos­pho­rus they called “Wil­lie Pete.” The 10th suf­fered the most ca­su­al­ties of any di­vi­sion in the United States mil­i­tary: Nine hun­dred and seventy-five were killed in ac­tion and over 4,000 were wounded. Back in Italy, my un­cle par­tic­i­pated in the (once fa­mous) Bat­tle of Riva Ridge the night of Fe­bru­ary 18, 1945 — sur­pris­ing Ger­man de­fend­ers and de­feat­ing them. The next night, Fe­bru­ary 19, his unit cap­tured Mount Belvedere, thereby break­ing the Ger­man line in the Apen­nine Moun­tains. He saw many of his friends killed.

Two weeks later he was al­most blown to bits dur­ing the Ital­ian cam­paign, and was found badly man­gled and face­down in the dirt. Af­ter he was re­vived on a cot in the field, he was brought to a U.S. Army hospi­tal in Italy, then shipped across the At­lantic by a mil­i­tary hospi­tal ship to Charleston, South Carolina, and then by Red Cross train to New York. On Long Is­land they would treat his lin­ger­ing post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, a de­bil­i­tat­ing con­di­tion that was then called “bat­tle fa­tigue” or “com­bat stress re­ac­tion.” Un­cle Sam was hos­pi­tal­ized for over two years be­fore he was re­leased back into Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. For many years he did not speak about his in­ter­nal strug­gle. Af­ter join­ing vet­eran groups, he slowly changed his mind and be­lieved in re­mem­ber­ing the past as a way to heal.

In the late 1990s, at my mother’s urg­ing, I ac­com­pa­nied him to the Tar­ry­town Hil­ton for a 10th Moun­tain WWII lun­cheon, where he was hon­ored as a re­gional Man of the Year; he told ev­ery­one that I’d write his story shortly. For years, I’d been promis­ing him I would write some­thing soon. Twenty years later, he no longer be­lieved me.

This past March, I got a call from Sam’s daugh­ter, my 48-year-old cousin Tracey Morrison; her fa­ther had a fail­ing heart and liver, and maybe a week to live. Af­ter re­cov­er­ing from the shock, I asked her if I could in­ter­view him in the hospi­tal. He wanted to speak to me right away: “Kid, you bet­ter hurry up this time.”

I ar­rived at the hospi­tal in Yonkers, New York, and sat at the edge of his bed, notic­ing his usual props on the ta­ble: he had brought a blond woman’s wig to the hospi­tal to amuse his nurses, in­sist­ing he was merely in for a sex change op­er­a­tion. I wrote down as much as I could, wait­ing at times for him to catch his breath. All the color in his face had drained away.

While I was in the hospi­tal my 95-year-old aunt, Etta Kut­ner, called from Boca Ra­ton, Florida.

“What can I say?” he told her. “It won’t be long. Good luck to both of us, Etta.” “I love you very much, brother,” she replied. “Lau­rie’s here,” he said. “She’s fi­nally found the time to tell my story.”

By the end of my visit I had worn him out, and I knew I had asked enough ques­tions. Af­ter I tear­fully said good­bye for what was prob­a­bly the last time, Tracey drove me to her fa­ther’s apart­ment to search his boxes of stuff for any­thing that would help fill in the gaps in his story. He par­layed his pen­chant for joke telling into reg­u­lar ra­dio ap­pear­ances: In Westch­ester he was known as Sud­den Sam — a Yonkers man who ran a very suc­cess­ful pin­ball and juke­box com­pany, Musical Mo­ments, and who might just pop in Westch­ester’s lo­cal sta­tion WFAS to tell a good one.

I couldn’t find any tapes of those ap­pear­ances. I did find an in­ter­view about his pin­ball and juke­box years in Re­Play Mag­a­zine, and a yel­lowed news­pa­per clip­ping by leg­endary sports­writer Maury Allen, who loved Sam’s au­then­tic New York fla­vor: Allen had sought out Sam’s per­spec­tive when a new 10th Moun­tain Di­vi­sion helped se­cure the coun­try af­ter 9/11. Do­ing on­line re­search the next morn­ing, I was shocked to find there were two record­ings of Sam in the Den­ver Pub­lic Li­brary’s 10th Moun­tain Archives: a long 1991 chat on WFAS where he later popped in with jokes, and raw footage of my un­cle from,“The Last Ridge,” a 2005 tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary di­rected by Ab­bie Kealy about the 10th Moun­tain.

What fol­lows is an oral in­ter­view cob­bled to­gether from ar­ti­cles, my own in­ter­views over decades, and those pre­cious Den­ver li­brary archives.

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