It was Fenton Grahnert, from Vancouver, Washington, who gave me a big key to understanding my dad. Grahnert had been in a foxhole near my father during a battle at Sugar Loaf Hill; the men were blasted by artillery. “I kind of went off the deep end,” he said. “The next day, they sent me to the hospital with combat fatigue.”
My father, I learned, was also hospitalized, on May 16, 1945. But according to the records I tracked down, Dad was soon sent back to combat and suffered another concussion two weeks later at the tomb on Hill 27.
What Grahnert called combat fatigue is known today as blast concussion, and it can cause traumatic brain injury, or TBI.
With that information in hand, I sought out Douglas Smith, MD, director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania. I described the way my dad would explode over such minor things as spilled water. “For absolute certain, traumatic brain injury can do that,” Dr. Smith said. “TBI can almost manifest as emotional instability, an inappropriate emotional response.”
Dr. Smith explained that the brain is able to endure mild shocks without injury. But a concussion can cause irreparable damage by rupturing axons, which extend from brain cells and transmit electrical current. “If I take Silly Putty, make a cylinder, and pull slowly, it keeps stretching and gets thinner and thinner,” Dr. Smith said. “But if I take the same Silly Putty and pull rapidly, it snaps.” And that is what axons do if the brain suffers a severe concussion. “Once an axon disconnects, it cannot grow back together,” Dr. Smith said. “The damage initiates long-term nerve degeneration.” Multiple concussions like those my father endured can worsen TBI.
I finally had an answer as to why my dad was often enraged. Steve Maharidge had a head filled with snapped Silly Putty.
Our family just thought Dad was sometimes crazy. Mom died believing this. As a teenager, I had felt anger toward my dad because of his rage. But now that anger was gone, and I was left with love. I only wish I could have shared more of that love with him when he was alive.