*(This was among the first posts I wrote in this blog. I wrote it in 2008, and I think it bears repeating. Hope you agree……)
I called an old soldier for Memorial Day. Elgin, I said, how are you? Karleen, he replied, it’s so good to hear from you.
Tell me about the war, I said. Oh, baby, he answered, I don’t like to talk about that. War is ugly, you know. And so we talked about his vegetables. In his mid-80s, hale and hearty, he’d just come in from the garden, which is full of squash and zucchini and tomatoes and onions and bell peppers.
He was stationed in the Philippines for two years in World War II. Old sepia-colored photographs show a lean, slouching, hawk-faced young man standing with a rifle slung over a shoulder near a pile of dead Japanese. A recent PBS documentary reminded that the battle for the Philippines was hard fought, often hand to hand, against a formidable and determined enemy who almost beat us.
I asked about Edward, his brother-in-law, whose old high-school, senior-year portrait, gently watercolored as was the style in those days, I have on my altar. Edward is handsome and young and smiling, seventeen, I think, in the portrait. He wears a suit and tie. His hair is neatly parted on one side. He too had been in the Philippines, but he was part of the three-month Battle of Bataan, which was lost. And he walked the long, hard, harsh, killing miles of the Bataan Death March, prosecuted as a war crime after the war ended. He survived and was on a unmarked prison ship on its way to Japan, when it was bombed by American forces. So he survived combat and a death march to die at sea. I think he was nineteen when he died. The baby of the family.
The news came to a little town in East Texas called Troupe. His mother lost her sanity for a time when the news came, and when she recovered she was never the same. That’s family legend anyway. Edward was my son’s great uncle. And Elgin is his grandfather………
My note this 5/29/11. Elgin, at 90, soldiers on. He lives by himself, drives himself around the little town in east Texas near which he lives, and tends his garden. He still won’t talk about the war. War scars and maims. Men who live on the brink of death bond in a way that is immediate and soul wrenching. Is there a war story in your family? How have the men in your family been impacted? How has that impact reverberated down? And what about the women?
So many war stories in my family. All war stories… We, my brother and I, are the first generation not to be soldiers as far back as I know…. I thought as a child that I would grow up to be a fighter pilot. Everyone laughed at me at school about this dream because I was always exactly the same as I am now… very much not cut out to be a fighter pilot or even on time for anything! What I am is “fey” like my grandmother who was having tea with a bishop when she dropped her cup and fell on her knees praying… at what was later determined to be the same time my uncle, her son, fell into a pit in Vietnam… in between poisoned spears. Luckily he was a small man, and he fell in exactly the right spot, so he was able to get out… I think that if the necessity to go to war were determined by the mothers of children who had been to war, and by soldiers who have been to war… we would have many fewer wars.
Oh, Karleen, you made me cry. Your post is about the people we love. I think too often, “war” becomes something anonymous fought so far from home and we forget that hearts don’t know about distance and the love is always there.
That was so poignant. You brought the meaning of war to your readers in such an immediate and timeless way. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. As always, I look forward to the next blog.
My youngest son is a captain in Afghanistan. I wanted him to do anything BUT go into the Army. My older son joined the Navy after his first year in college. When they were younger, I offered to move with them to Canada so they would not be drafted. They declined. I’m still wondering how I might have sold them on the idea.
I almost can’t bear the songs and flags. To me, patriotism is manipulation plain and simple, making it somehow right that our young will fight and die far from home, commanded by men who’ve never been trained in the ways of peace. I yearn to hear the Star Spangled Banner replaced by “Ain’t gonna study war no more…”