“I was in World War II.”
I don’t spend a lot of time on the phone at my day job, but sometimes it does involve some lengthy phone conversations, especially when walking people through our website or our paperwork.
This was a new one. “Really?”
He certainly sounded the right age. “Yep. I was there for the Normandy invasion.”
Goddamn, I thought. My mind immediately filled with images from documentaries, supplimented by my own rather vivid imagination. Which beach? I wanted to ask. What was it like? Did they shoot at you? Were you scared? How on Earth did you find the courage? Of course, my writer’s mind wanted the little details, the parts that make it seem real. How cold was the water? How deep was it where you had to jump in? How long was it before you got dry again? How long before you got a chance to eat? Or were you even hungry?
But I couldn’t ask any of those things. Even if I hadn’t been on the job, what if those memories were painful? Wouldn’t it be rude to ask?
All I could think to do was thank him for his service. Which is nice, I suppose, but seems hollow to me.
That man was much more than “service.” He was a story. A hero story. Even if no one ever shot at him and he never shot at anyone else. He was there. He went and served. And he managed to come home again, when so many others didn’t.
My dad was in Vietnam. When I was little, I was sort of obsessed with the idea that my daddy was a soldier. I was very proud of him. (I still am!) But he never liked to talk about it. I think the longest conversation I’ve ever heard him have about the Army was a few sentences traded with my husband regarding combat boots.
A couple years ago, my dad’s mom gave my nephew a little ivory Buddha. “Your grandpa brought me that from Vietnam,” she told my nephew, who shares my dad’s name.
“I found it in a field we were walking through,” was all Dad said about it.
My mind reels. I want to know. Was he in enemy territory, or friendly? Was the field mined? How hot was it? Was Vietnam as pretty as they say? What did he think when he found the statue? Were there lots of bugs there? Did anyone shoot at him? But I can’t ask. Look up “stoic” in the dictionary, and there’s a picture of my dad. When he doesn’t want to talk about something, he doesn’t talk about it.
But it makes me wonder – what about the vets who do want to talk about it?
I can imagine someone coming home, fresh from the field since we don’t really let the troops decompress first anymore (I agree with Lt. Col. Grossman, there was definitely something to be said for the long voyage home with the rest of your unit), and here’s this poor soldier who wants to work through all this craziness, and everyone at home is like me: too “polite” to ask.
Is it consideration, or cowardice on our parts? We don’t want to be rude. We don’t want to seem morbid or bloodthirsty or insensitive by asking all the questions that we have in our heads. And so we ignore what we feel we can’t talk about.
Everyone’s life is a story. With luck, mine won’t be very interesting. It saddens me to think of so many stories – people whose lives have been cursed (or blessed) with interesting times – going quietly into the long night, untold.
How can we get it right if we don’t ask? How else can we learn?
On Veteran's Day, in addition to saying a big Thank You to our veterans, I hope we can also take a moment to learn a story or two.
I want to welcome everyone who is stopping by today as part of the Blog Tour de Troops! You should be joining me from Brian Jeffreys's blog. The next stop on the tour will be at Dianne Venetta's blog. Please leave a comment – every comment wins a free eBook of Scent and Shadow for you and a soldier! (Make sure to include your email in your comment so I can contact you.)
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