The elderly man sat in a cushioned rocking chair that faced a big window. Above his head, on the wall behind him, hung dozens of paintings.
“Look there’s a cardinal,” he said to his friend – a young man who was visiting. And sure enough, a bright red cardinal stared back from behind the window, perched on a railing. This seemed to have triggered a thought in his head about the St. Louis Cardinals, his favorite baseball team. Because he then began to talk about how he had once tried out for another professional baseball team back in 1941, the Cincinnati Reds. He spoke of how he, playing as the catcher in a scrimmage, almost threw out a runner at second base.
He sat with a small foldout table between his knees. A lone bowl of cereal sat atop the table; his breakfast. He stopped eating completely in order to talk to his friend.
“If I’ve ever been in a horrible place, it was the Hürtgen Forest,” he said with a small smile and a hint of a chuckle. This way of speaking was not uncommon for him. He would talk about exchanging fire with German soldiers in the Second World War, or watching his army buddies die in front of him, or meeting professional baseball player Dizzy Dean – all accompanied by a high, friendly chuckle.
~ ~ ~
Julian James Altrogge, or “J.J.” as everyone called him, was drafted into the army the same year he tried out for the Reds. He went from playing with future professional baseball players to sleeping in mud and foxholes, facing the Germans in battle.
1943 came and J.J. found himself in a convoy heading for Europe.
“Wouldn’t you know it,” J.J. said, “the boat we were on, the motors conked out.”
United States submarines surrounded the broken down boat for fear of German submarines attacking. After the motors were fixed, J.J.’s boat caught up with the convoy and ended up in Belfast, Ireland, where he stayed for training.
Back in 1937, JJ had worked as a draft man for Texaco. He made and studied maps for four years until he was drafted into the army. Seven years later, in 1944, J.J. became a draft man again, this time for the US army. Suddenly, he found himself riding a chow truck from the mud beds to regimental headquarters to begin his new job as a mapmaker.
~ ~ ~
“So the Germans were running like crazy,” JJ said, “and we were going up the east side of the Rhine River and our unit was going so fast – we were headed north to a town called Düsseldorf – there was a German on a motorcycle that came into our headquarters; he thought he was going into German headquarters.” J.J. inserts his short, high chuckle, “So he got captured.”
J.J. continued talking about traveling up the Rhine River with his unit, “One of our units found some caves; they were full of paintings. The Germans went in and took all of the famous paintings, you know, out of France. And took them over there and put them in the caves. And so our unit discovered those paintings.”
The dozens of paintings that were hanging on the wall behind the old man’s head were all his own. This room, this small foyer of a room was his cave by the Rhine River, except that the paintings were not stolen, but originals.
“When I was over in Germany, I saw a painting on a wall,” J.J. said. His superior officer told him it wasn’t a painting, but a reproduction; a photograph of a painting imprinted on a canvas.
“Well, when I get home,” J.J. declared, “I’m going to be an artist. I’m going to have paintings on my wall.”
And that’s what he did. After the war, he started experimenting with the practice of painting. Every year, now a grandfather and great grandfather, he sends out birthday cards and Christmas cards with his paintings on the front, not to mention the dozens of pieces he has on the walls of his house.
~ ~ ~
J.J. played a crucial part in United States troops being victorious in battles. As a draftsman, he made maps and calculated where the Germans were located. At the time, there was a Frenchman named Andre accompanying J.J. Andre mentioned to J.J. that he knew right where a German battery was; he said he had walked past it everyday on his way to work for the Germans in Brest, Germany.
“I figured out right where they were,” J.J. said, “and we started firing machine gun bullets on that battery. And they were headed out of there and, boy, the hundred-and-fives just blasted them.”
They were readily defeated.
Finally, in September of 1945, J.J. was discharged from the army, roughly four months after the war ended. The following year he earned a degree in geology, got rehired by Texaco, and married Jonalee Freeman.
~ ~ ~
J.J. and his brother Bob begged their mother to let them go to the baseball field. She refused. They begged some more. Finally, a family friend, who was also the local butcher, offered to take the young boys to the field.
After the butcher dropped them off at the field, the boys realized the place was fenced in. This wasn’t a problem; they simply crawled under the fence and snuck into the stadium, like any boy would do.
They made their way to a spot behind the St. Louis Cardinals’ bench. There sat Dizzy Dean, who is now a member of the baseball hall of fame. As the boys positioned themselves behind the dugout, a security guard shouted at them to get away, but Dizzy turned and accepted the boys as his friends.
“These are my guests,” he said.
A childhood highlight for J.J., as it would be for any boy.
~ ~ ~
J.J. had four children with Jonalee. The nurses were in charge of the delivery of his first child; the doctor was absent, a “bum” and an “alcoholic” according to J.J. That child was Mark, who would one day become a pastor. John was the third child, the second boy.
“John got into drugs,” J.J. said, “and his life was just messed up. Oh, that was terrible. I hate to think about it.”
John, as a boy, had run from his home in Indiana, Pa., all the way to South Carolina. His father had to drive south to retrieve his boy. Then, as 21-year-old, John took his own life.
J.J. won’t talk about these things. He won’t talk about how his wife suffered through Alzheimer’s disease in the last years of her life, or the suicide of his son. He will gladly tell war stories, and with a smile. But something underneath, something deep makes it difficult for him to talk about these personal issues. He’s an old man, but an even older soul. He’s a cheerful grandfather and a faithful Christian man.
“God was with the me the whole way,” he said.
After almost two hours talking with his young friend, J.J. went back to his soggy breakfast, and continued on with his simple but full life.