As a child, among the few scraps of information Eddie Conrad possessed about the father he never knew was that he had died fighting in World War II.
His dad never held him in his arms nor even laid eyes upon the infant who bore his name because the soldier was on the battlefront when Eddie was born Feb. 2, 1945, in Woodbury.
“I grew up all my life being told that my dad got killed in the Battle of the Bulge,” said Eddie, 75, who has lived in Lebanon since he was 5 years old. “My mother found out after getting a phone call from his sister.”
Joslyn, Eddie’s wife of 56 years, said, “Every now and then Eddie would say, ‘I wish I could put this to rest, but I just don’t believe my daddy’s dead.’ ”
Then came a long-distance phone call late on the night of Oct. 11, 2004, that would validate Eddie’s premonitions
“I answered the phone,” said Joslyn. “A woman said, ‘Is this where Eddie Ray Conrad lives?’ I said, ‘Yes. Who is this?’ She said, ‘I’m Beverly, his half-sister.’ I heard her say, ‘I found him. I found him.’ ”
Eddie got on the phone and to test the stranger and asked, “If you’re so smart, what is my father’s middle name?”
“She told me, ‘It’s Rupert. He wants to talk to you.’ I was shocked. That was his middle name, and it’s unusual. I told her, ‘Well, give me his number, and I’ll call him back,’ ” said Eddie.
“I hung up the phone and told Joslyn. ‘You won’t believe this. My dad is alive and wants to talk to me.’ I called him back, and he said, ‘Hello, son.’ I said, ‘Where the hell have you been for the last 60 years?’
“He said, ‘I’d like to explain it to you and make it up to you and your mother.’ I told him my mother had passed. He said, ‘Well, I’d like to meet you and get to know you.’ I was still in shock.
“I asked him, ‘Why now?’
“He said, ‘My wife died recently and had Alzheimer’s. I kept her at home for 10 years. After she passed away, I told the kids to all come to the house and told them I had a son back in Tennessee while on maneuvers in Wilson County, and I’m gonna try to find him.’ ”
“I told him I was very interested in meeting him,” said Eddie, who at 59 discovered he had an 88-year-old father as well as six half-siblings including an older brother also named Eddie.
The family in Lebanon
The son of Lucille Virginia Crook and Edward Rupert Conrad, Eddie said he grew up an only child and was raised in Alexandria, Smithville and Statesville “like a sharecropper going from place to place.”
In 1950 his mother and grandparents moved to Lebanon, where his mom, who had remarried, operated the El Tricia Motel. Eddie graduated from Lebanon High School in 1963, and he and Joslyn wed in 1964 and produced two sons, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. They have owned and operated Conrad Construction Company since 1974.
“My father came here from Portland, Maine, on military maneuvers in 1944 and was in the Smithville and Watertown areas. He met my mother in Liberty while on guard duty. They were married in Ringgold, Ga. My grandmother hired a cab to take them there,” said Eddie about what likely was a shotgun wedding.
“I was raised by my grandma (Della Crook), and she told me my dad had died in the Battle of the Bulge. (As an adult) I was going to France on a trip, and I wanted to locate my father’s grave. I asked Sen. Jim Sasser to find out which cemetery he was in, and word came back to me that some of the people who came back from war didn’t want anyone to know where they were and had their records sealed. Later I was told his body had been shipped back.”
Four days after receiving the jaw-dropping phone call that night in 2004, Eddie and Joslyn Conrad flew to Scarborough, Me., to make the acquaintance of Eddie Conrod. His father had changed his last name, possibly when he enlisted in the Army.
“We met him at the airport. There was a small crowd of people and he was sort of at the back. He had a big sign that said, ‘I am your Dad.’ He was a little, short guy, nearly 90 years old and stood about 5-foot- 4,” recalled Eddie, who is 6-feet. “He said, ‘Call me Pops.’ ”
When the Tennessee visitors arrived at their host’s house, the old soldier sat in his recliner, and Eddie and Joslyn simultaneously spotted a can of Planter’s cashews on the nightstand.
“I knew he had to be Eddie’s father then,” said Joslyn. “Eddie has the same can of Planter’s nuts on his nightstand at home.”
The World War II experience
During their initial sit-down conversation, Eddie discovered that his father as a youngster had been put up for adoption by his widowed grandfather. Before enlisting in the Army, he had worked in the local shipyards and after the war he was in the plumbing business.
“It lifted a burden off me to just to hear his story and to get to know him. I had searched for him. It was a good feeling. I understand during the war people did things that they were not proud of,” said Eddie.
“He told me, ‘I’m sorry. I fully intended to come back to you and your mother. I got shipped back to Portland, and I met another woman.’ That makes me wonder if his sister, when she called my mom telling her that he had died overseas, was not telling the truth to protect him.
“The way I look at it, I got to accept it ’cause that’s all I got. It helped me to know that he had been raised an orphan.”
Among other siblings, Eddie met his half-sister, Beverly, on that first trip to his father’s home. She told him that their dad had never shared much about his wartime experiences, but with Eddie there, he opened up.
“Dad told me he was a combat engineer and that he got a finger shot off putting up a bridge on the Rhine. He told me he had met (Generals) Patton and Eisenhower,” said Eddie.
As for how his name landed on the casualty list, Eddie explained, “He said that he had hit a land mine with his Jeep. He had sandbags in the floor which saved his life, but they found him unconscious in the road. They thought he was dead and pulled his dog tags off him.”
Eventually, the wounded soldier was transported back to Portland, where he had enlisted, rather than Tennessee.
“He told me he had been disoriented and it took him three months to recover,” said Eddie.
During the course of conversation, Eddie’s dad confessed he had been married three times and had never divorced either of his first two wives.
“The reason he wound up in Tennessee,” said Eddie, “was that his first wife found out he had gotten a young waitress pregnant. To get out of town, he joined the Army. He was sort of a ladies’ man.”
A sudden extended family
Eddie learned that he had three older siblings: Eddie Jr., Shirley and Bill; and three younger ones: Lewis, Robert and Beverly; who were sprinkled around the U.S., from Maine to Florida and from Minnesota to California.
When finding out that Eddie collected old vehicles, his father told him that he had a son in Florida who also was an antique car collector.
“He showed me a picture, and I showed it to Joslyn,” Eddie recalled. “It was a guy with a 1958 Chevrolet Biscayne. It was the same car we had seen at an antique car show in Kissimmee, Fla., the year before. I had told the owner, ‘Why would you bring a car this plain and drab here?’ and sort of insulted him, and it was my half-brother, Lewis.”
About his half-brother Bill Swan, who lives in Maine, Eddie said, “He and I are two peas in a pod. We have much in common. Our wives look a lot alike and we both raced cars when we were younger.”
Over the last 10 years of his father’s life, Eddie made a half-dozen or so trips to Maine to see him.
“In later years we visited him at a nursing home, and they told us he was a spunky little guy and he loved the women. We brought him down here, and he spent some time with me and we went to Florida,” said Eddie.
“Once I took him to Hooter’s and told the waitresses that it was his birthday, so the pretty girls brought a piece of cake over to the table and sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to him. He leaned over to me and said, ‘It’s not my birthday,’ and I told him, ‘I know but it’s mine.’ ”
“He had a great memory,” added Joslyn. “When he was down here one time, we went for a drive on a Saturday morning, and he wanted to go to the Watertown square. He told us to go down a road and turn left, and he took us to a rock wall which he said was where they (the soldiers on maneuvers) camped out. Then we drove to Liberty, and he told us there used to be a log cabin around the corner, and we turned the corner, and it was still there.”
When Eddie Conrod died at the age of 97 on May 7, 2014, the surviving siblings asked Eddie if he would speak at the funeral.
“The family called me to do the eulogy because nobody wanted to get up and speak in front of a crowd. It was not difficult. I tried to keep it jolly. I said, ‘If it weren’t for dear old Dad we might not be in this place. I went through what I knew about him and the family. I said I appreciated his being my father and getting some genes that I could put to use. I mentioned he loved women and he loved his children and may have mentioned he loved women twice because he was married to three women,” said Eddie, noting that only two of his siblings attended the ceremony.
Before he died, Eddie’s dad passed along the dog tags he wore in WWII to his Tennessee son.
“After 60 years, I didn’t want anything, but he gave me the dog tags he wore in ’44 and that was enough,” said Eddie, who described his latter-years relationship with his father as “jovial.”
Said Joslyn, “After that late-night phone call came and we decided to go see him, Eddie said, ‘What if we get up there and find he’s a multi-millionaire?’ I told him, ‘I can handle that.’
He would call Eddie and talk. It’s hard to be cordial to someone that made some very bad decisions, but on the other side he wanted to make amends.”
Asked if he would counsel other adults alienated from an aging parent to reconcile, Eddie said, “Do it. Reconnect, if possible, before it’s too late. Good, bad or ugly, you could die with something on your conscience. It filled a hole I had in my life. I hope somebody in the same situation would try to find their father.”
While the first words Eddie spoke to his father may have seemed harsh, his final words were quite the opposite.
“He was always trying to be remorseful of what he did,” said Eddie upon reflection. “The last thing I told him was that I loved him and I wished him well.”
BATTLE OF THE BULGE
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, one million-plus Allied troops, including 500,000 Americans, fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Approximately 19,000 American soldiers were killed in action, 47,500 were wounded and more than 23,000 were missing in action.
Winston Churchill called the Battle of the Bulge “the greatest American battle of the war.” Taking place in Belgium, it was the Germans’ last major offensive in World War II. The failure to divide Allied troops with the offensive paved the way to victory.
Lasting six weeks, from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945, the assault took place during frigid weather with 30 German divisions attacking battle-fatigued American troops across 85 miles of the densely wooded Ardennes Forest.