When my semester first started, I was excited to take a class on World War II. Most people my age grew up playing the pre-modern-warfare Call of Duty games centered around this war, and almost everyone has seen those movies that pull at your patriotic heartstrings like Saving Private Ryan. A couple of weeks ago, we had the chance to hear about the war from someone who lived it, a man named Bert Jenkins. He talked about the realities of war, life, and sports. Every word he said had a force of realism and truth behind it. My class heard a first hand account of a life none of us will probably ever experience, from a man that was completely honest about the cards life had dealt him.
Bert was a very soft spoken man. He wasn’t this big assertive guy that a lot of people envision when they think of World War II veterans. He was a nice, humble man. Bert started his story by telling us he was a basketball player at Mississippi State University when he was drafted to serve in the military. Bert didn’t try to give off some sort of macho-man persona about how he was ready to go fight for ole’ Uncle Sam. He was honest. He told us how upset he was at the time. He told us he was angry he had to leave, and that he was concerned about his future. Bert was confident he had a future in playing the game of basketball, and he didn’t hide the fact that he was upset about his getting drafted putting that in jeopardy.
Bert told us about his training, about how he simply did what he was told. He didn’t want to be some war hero, he didn’t want to be Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan. Bert was just like any real human being. He wanted to survive. He wanted to come home alive. Bert trained as a “bazooka man,” and before he knew it, he was on the way across the Big Pond to fight in France.
When he started to talk about his time in combat, Bert introduced me to the reality of war. He made me realize it isn’t a game of Call of Duty, and it isn’t a movie. It’s real, and it’s unforgiving. Bert wanted to survive. That’s all. He didn’t try to paint some fake picture of himself as a big hero. He was honest with us about his intentions.
All did not go as planned for Bert, though. When he was out on patrol, the truck he was in was hit be a grenade. Bert was thrown from the truck,and a piece of debris sliced into his leg. Bert told us that unlike the romanticized version of war we get in movies, none of his comrades came back to get him. In a world where we think every man in war had a “no man left behind” mentality, Bert told the truth. His comrades left him behind, and he didn’t blame them. Bert knew everyone was looking out for number one, just like he was.
Unfortunately for Bert, the next face he saw wasn’t that of a friend, but instead that of the ultimate foe. It was the face of a Nazi, and Bert thought it was a face that spelled the end of his life. He told us he had no doubt that the German men would kill him and leave him there. Why would they take him as a prisoner? He was hurt badly,and it would be a burden to take him as a prisoner. Bert prepared himself for what he thought was the reality of his situation. He prepared himself to die.
We’ve all made miscalculations in life, but Bert’s miscalculation of his mortal enemy saved his life. The German’s did take him prisoner, and they admitted him into a hospital in a small French town they had recently obliterated. Bert was a foreign man in enemy territory, in a land where no one spoke his language, and where he was an American being kept in an enemy hospital filled with wounded enemy troops. The odds of Bert getting treatment were slim at best, and he knew his situation was still grim at best. He knew too that he was not laying dead in a French street, so things were not totally hopeless.
It was in this hospital where Bert met a little girl that saved his life. He had been in the hospital for several days, and was desperate for something to drink. Bert was a low priority though, and he could feel the life being sucked out of him due to thirst. A small French girl from the destroyed village found Bert in the hospital, and he was able to make her understand he very badly needed water. The little girl went out and found Bert water, and took care of Bert for the rest of his stay. Bert read us a poem he wrote about the little girl, and tears began to roll from his eyes as he reminisced about the little French girl that had saved his life. It got really dusty in the classroom right around when Bert read that poem. Maybe now Bert was in the clear. Maybe the little girl could take care of him, and he could make it home.
This wasn’t the case for him, though. His leg worsened over time, and German doctors decided amputation was the only choice Bert had. This news was devastating for Bert. All he wanted to do when he got to France was go home and play basketball. Now that dream would be shattered. Bert asked the doctors if they were absolutely sure. They said yes, and Bert had no choice. His leg had to go.
Bert doesn’t remember much between losing his leg and getting home. He remembers waking up several times during his surgery to agonizing pain. After that, all Bert remembers is getting home. He was home to face a harsh reality: His life would be forever different. His dream of playing basketball was over.
This was reality. This wasn’t Saving Private Ryan, or The Pacific, or Call of Duty. This was a real man’s life. This was a real man’s reality. A reality changed by the brutality of war. Bert had shattered every perception mass-media had given me about World War II. Bert showed me reality.
With his dream of playing basketball as a career over, Bert could have given up. Even reminiscing about his basketball career being cut short seemed to make Bert sad all these years later. Bert didn’t give up, though. Bert did what he knew was the next best thing. He became a coach.
He didn’t just become a coach. He became THE coach in the state of Mississippi. Bert had a buddy that had come to the class talk with him. His buddy tapped the guy next to him and told him to ask Bert about basketball. Bert’s face lit up when he heard the question. Bert wanted to talk basketball, not war.
Bert became the head coach at Gulfport high school after the war. He coached there 38 years. In that time, he won 866 games, lost only 180 (82.8 winning percentage), and won seven state titles. Bert conquered his new reality. Bert lost a leg, and thought his basketball career was over. Instead, he went on to have one of the greatest coaching careers in the history of Mississippi. Bert was asked how he was so successful, and this is what he said: “Well, when the season ended, all the other coaches hit the golf course, and did other things. I never did much of that stuff because of my leg. When the season ended, I was already working on next season. My leg made basketball my entire life, and I guess that ‘s why.”
Bert thought his leg being gone would be a handicap. That his lost basketball career would haunt him forever. He thought World War II had taken his life from him. But it hadn’t. Bert conquered the war, and Bert conquered what the war did to him. He took what should have been a handicap, and used it to make himself a success.
Bert opened my eyes to a lot of things that day. He showed me the realities of war. He showed me war is not a game, he showed me it’s real, and it’s tragic. He showed me something else though, something more important. He showed me limitations are an illusion. Bert wanted to be a basketball star, and he was, even without his leg. Bert showed me that no matter what limitations we think we have, our dreams are possible. No matter what we think our realities are, we can always take things and make them better. Bert Jenkins is one of the strongest most courageous men I’ve ever encountered, and he showed me all this in a 50 minute class. Bert is a conqueror of war and of life, and I will forever remember him when I think there is a limit to what can be achieved.