Besides the ear-shattering percussion of exploding missiles and falling bombs, there is also enduring, life-saving music in war. Songs are as much a part of war as any battle kit. Music can be used to attack or defend, to mourn or to survive. On the outskirts of Kiev, besieged by a menacing but stalled Russian convoy 40-miles long, a Ukrainian soldier, Jeka Stencenko, 28, prepared for the imminent attack by singing the classic Nina Simone ballad, “Feelin’ Good.”

Birds flying high, you know how I feel
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel

Why that buoyant song before battle? Why not a dutiful march or the boisterous Ukrainian anthem that is echoing around the world on social media and protests? Why such a happy-go-lucky song in the face of death?

Hearing this story of a soldier singing for his life—knowing that many Ukrainian and Russian soldiers are so unbearably young—I remembered my own grandfather, still a boy when he fought with the Rainbow Division caissons in another world war. What young men know of war and what old veterans understand about war may take a lifetime to fathom.

Grandfather Harold, a WWI veteran and gorgeous Irish tenor, asked two things of me as an old man on his deathbed: To read to him the unvarnished truth about war from his WWI diary; and to sing the war songs that were once the soundtrack to his survival. Like the Ukrainian soldier, he now needed music to accompany him in a battle he might lose.

“Sing to me, girlies,” my grandfather whispered.

My mother and I wheeled him down to the hospital’s visitors room with its grand piano and wall of breathing, green plants.

Always a slender man, my grandfather’s sallow face was now hollowed out so that his cheekbones slanted almost painfully high in his narrow face. His shock of silver hair shot straight up like a bird’s ruff that my mother was always trying to smooth down. She did that now, lifting her treble hand from the piano to pat down her father’s wild, wispy hair. Then she expertly played the keyboard, nodding to me to sing the WWI song, “My Buddy,” heartily because Grandfather Harold was hard of hearing.

Nights are long since you went away
I think about you all through the day

My grandfather closed his eyes, nodding in rhythm, mouthing the words. I sang harmony the way I’d always blend with his robust tenor. But Grandfather’s voice now was a faint and hoarse whisper as he tried to sing. All that came out was a hum. Tuneless. It was the first time in my whole life I’d ever heard my grandfather off pitch—and it destroyed me. Tears streamed down my face, and I was glad that his eyes were tightly closed, as if it took all his concentration to hear the music.

My buddy, my buddy
Your buddy misses you

Suddenly Grandfather Harold opened his bloodshot blue eyes and with a mighty effort he groaned and sat up straight in his wheelchair. Startled, I looked at him as he cocked his head to listen. The dry skin on his forehead creased with effort and he gasped for air as if before a deep dive. Then Grandfather opened his mouth and one pure note tenor came out, aimed straight at his beloved and only daughter. He’d always doted on her; it was from him she inherited her musical genes. Instinctively, Mother stopped playing piano and just listened to him—that endless note echoing in the hospital room with its tall windows streaming sunlight. The two of them, father and daughter, held in the shimmering halo of sound.

“Misses youuuuuuuuuuu,” my grandfather sang until he was breathless, choking for air, sputtering.

“He needs his oxygen,” Mother jumped up from the piano and wheeled her father through the circuitous hospital halls.

Lifting my grandfather’s 117 pounds from the wheelchair to his hospital bed, I settled him under his oxygen tent while Mother went to get him some lunch. I sat vigil with Grandfather, still humming softly, “My Buddy.”


Breathing in the cool oxygen, Grandfather Harold’s eyes brightened; he turned to me expectantly with a nod. This was our signal to take up again our secret ritual: Reading him his WWI diary from the trenches. I couldn’t refuse him his own story.

“If no one listens,” he’d argued, “I’ll have to tell my story to a stranger.”

So again, I opened the thick, water-stained leather diary, which Grandfather had entrusted to me, and began to read to him. We’d arrived at an entry set at the German front where Grandfather was soldiering with the horse and caissons brigade. It was there a wild dog had bitten him in the face leaving a scar and a damaged tear duct that eternally dribbled as if he was crying. As a toddler, I was fascinated by this scar, which ran between his eyes and near his nose. I’d trace it with my fingers as he’d tell me again how it happened and then sing me to sleep with his inherited family lullaby.

Now he was dreaming, eyes half-closed as he listened to me read his own stories of war buddies, battles, death tolls, and the 1918 influenza epidemic on the home front, which killed more civilians than the war had American soldiers. Suddenly the room seemed to teem with the marching drama of the Great War. At one point, he suddenly winced and struggled to sit up in his oxygen tent.

“Those Germans,” he murmured with a grudging respect. “Never thought they’d lie in wait this long to ambush me.” Grandfather gave me a rare direct gaze, his pale blue eyes so bright it hurt to look at him. “They’re here, you know, right here with us.”

He was not rambling. We were no longer in a hospital room but back with his army unit. We were on the battlefield surrounded by death. Grandfather waved an arm and opened his oxygen tent for me to come closer. I slipped my hand through the plastic to touch his shoulder.

“Oh, girlie,” he said. “I didn’t write down the real story in that diary. I’ve never told a living soul the truth.” He coughed and grabbed my hand, which was darkly spotted with age and IV bruises.

“Tell me,” I breathed.

He sighed. “Strutting and singing and winning—that’s all folks wanted to hear. And when I got back from the front, well, no one likes a crybaby in the middle of a big celebration, now, do they?” He laughed, and his voice cracked. Then a coughing spell silenced him for a long time. When it subsided, Grandfather seized my arm fiercely. “I’ve got to tell my story to them.”

His eyes flickered around the hospital room, as if to at last meet the gaze of the German soldiers whom he believed had taken up residence to haunt this tidy antiseptic barracks. “And somebody . . . somebody still living.”

“I’m here, Grandpa,” I said softly, trying to steady my voice.

Grandfather was quiet a long time. “You see, girlie, I killed them—not like you do these days with bombs and rockets—but with my bare hands.” He nodded to a far corner of the room. “See, that German over there? I gutted him with my bayonet. He was just a boy, like me. A soldier boy.” Grandpa paused to gather himself, and then continued, “The boy held onto my bayonet and his eyes rolled back; but then he kept staring at me like he wanted to see somebody’s face while he was dying, even if it was his killer’s. I’ll never forget that look, no sireee. I’ve carried him with me like we were kin, like he was really somebody to me instead of a stranger . . . Poor fellow on the wrong side of my gun.”

My grandfather shivered and I pulled the thin covers up over the feeding tubes in his belly. I held his feet now, gently massaging the crooked, bony toes. His feet were freezing, as if he’d been trampling all night on a cold battleground.

It was getting late, and visitors’ hours almost over, when he asked, “Sing me that old spiritual . . . Wayfaring Stranger.” He could only mouth the words with me:

I’m going home to meet my mother
I’m going home no more to roam
I’m only going over Jordan

Suddenly he sat up in his hospital bed, staring and pointing to the opposite corner of the shadowy room. “Don’t you see him? There’s that hefty fella, beet-faced still. He got his head blown off, girlie. I found it in a field of cabbages looking like it just grew there. I didn’t kill him. But I didn’t bury him, either. I just kept grabbing those cabbages—that’s all we lived on during that long march. We were the first division to cross the Krauts’ border, the first to see all the dead, theirs and ours.”

Suddenly my grandfather laughed and looked at me fondly. “You taking notes?” he demanded. His hand clawed mine and he said. “Don’t call’em Krauts when you tell this story to the family. No one can look at these faces so close now and call’em Krauts.” Grandfather tried to sit up in his bed and managed only to raise himself up on his bony elbows. “Besides, these boys are finally here to carry me on over. Ain’t that a fine fiddle, girlie? I killed them—now, they’re gonna carry me.”

I held his wasted hand. It felt like a cornhusk—light, with a vegetable rot. They say in the South that before a body dies, it gives off the scent of crushed pumpkins. Grandpa smelled sweet and rank like compost. Right then, I knew this was my last visit with my grandfather.

Leaning in, I listened to him whispering. “Honey, because I’m meeting those German boys now, man-to-man, I believe some of them are forgiving me. Remember your scripture? ‘For now, I see through a glass darkly, but then, face to face.’ Well, I’m seeing them face-to-face now. It’s not judgment. It’s more like meeting up with a man again I didn’t much understand before. It’s like meeting yourself . . . well, coming and going, hah!”

Then my grandfather curled up within the translucent wings of his oxygen tent and sighed, “Sing on, honey.”

Slowly I reached out and parted wide the plastic veil between us. Grandfather opened his eyes and nodded with pleasure as I began the song that he’d sung to me when I was small. It wasn’t his all-healing lullaby, though I’d sang that to him many times as he lay dying. This time I sang what he most requested.

“Over there, over there,” I sang. “Send the word, send the word over there. Say the Yanks are comin’, the Yanks are comin’, so beware . . .”

This Yank is comin’,” my grandfather sang out softly as if it were a prayer, as if all the ghosts gathered around him in that room would finally hear why a world war made a young soldier sing and take up arms, and how an old man now was taken up—in their arms.

L.A. Times, “Now it’s no mercy,” Ukrainian soldiers vow as a showdown with Russian forces nears,” March 7, 2022: