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'The wolf was his best friend,' a son remembers his father who served in WWII

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps. Growing up in 1950s St. Louis, Judd Esty-Kendall remembers having falcons, raccoons, even a flying squirrel. They belonged to his father, Henry. He was a salesman and World War II veteran who took in wild animals. At StoryCorps, Judd told his own son about a special bond between his dad and one animal in particular.

JUDD ESTY-KENDALL SR: We got a full-blooded wolf as a young pup. He was named Peter. We would all take turns giving the wolf a bottle, and it grew up beautiful, strong, intelligent. My father would come home in his suit from the city after working all day, strip into old clothes and go out in the backyard and wrestle with the wolf. But I cannot remember any times when he came home and did anything with the kids.

JUDD ESTY-KENDALL JR: Do you think his military service had anything to do with that?

JUDD ESTY-KENDALL SR: Yeah, World War II totally changed his life because he suffered from fairly serious PTSD, untreated. And he was really very nervous about being with people. The wolf was his best friend. It was his way of having a bond with a living being that did not make him anxious. But then Peter scared the bejesus out of some neighborhood kids who came onto our property, and my father realized the wolf had to go. A few years after that, my father learned that the wolf had been sold to one of these little rural Midwest local zoos, so we went there. And the largest pen was the wolf. My father started saying, Peter, Peter, and sticking his hands through the fence.

And then, in what would seem to be an impossible turn of events, my father convinced the people at the zoo to let him go in the cage. And they were wrestling like they used to in the backyard. And the problem became getting my father out of the cage 'cause the wolf was not about to be separated from my father by an inch. And I remember one of the keepers hit the wolf in the hindquarters with a pole, and the wolf turned to snap at him, and my father went out the door. We spoke very little the rest of the trip. He was silent.

I sincerely wish that my relationship with my father had been better, because I was not in the least empathetic to him. There really was no relationship except anger within me. But it must have been incredibly hard for him knowing that his best friend was being left behind in a cage. I wrote a verse to a song about him once. I'll tell you the story of my father, who was born with all the gifts the gods could give, but they sent him off to fight a great war, even though he had his whole life to live. And it's not that he came home wounded, but he came home strangled up inside. And his only friends were the falcon and the wolf, who couldn't understand the fear he had to hide.

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FADEL: That was Judd Esty-Kendall with his son, also named Judd, remembering Henry Kendall. Their conversation is archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jo Corona