Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tell It

As I worked on my first manuscript, I studied World War II to a depth I never had before.  As I've read the personal stories of the people who fought and, in some cases, gave their lives, I've been struck by the very human responses to the sacrifices asked for and given.

One of the most poignant stories I've heard was actually told to me many years ago when I worked for AARP.  At that time, I was working with the volunteers in Minnesota and I became close with the lead volunteer and her husband Woody.  Woody was a World War II veteran.

One night over dinner I asked Woody about his service.  I don't remember anymore what prompted me to ask, but he started talking.  He talked about being on the ground in Europe for a very short time before being captured by the Germans, he told us about his time in the prisoner of war camp, the interactions with his Nazi captors, the relationships that formed among the prisoners.  He was eighteen years old.

Finally, Woody excused himself and left the table.  His wife, the woman he'd shared the last fifty plus years with, turned to me and said,"I've never heard those stories.  He never talked about it."  Her eyes sparkled with unshed tears.

I think it's important that veterans tell their stories.  When they do, they bring the reality home to us.  Most of us have no idea what it's like to serve.  Most of us have no clue what it's like to be in the middle of war.

I'm grateful for the information I'm able to research, the personal stories that put a face on what now amounts to national legend.  When we study history in school, we receive the facts - the dates, the timelines, the historians' perspectives.  We learn the collective opinions on what happened, why it happened and how it happened.

The personal stories tell us how war effected people.  They seem less filtered.  They're less of a compilation or aggregation of experiences and more anecdotal, better able to illustrate those moments of daily life, the events large and small, that woven together tell the real story because while nations wage war, it's people who fight it.

As our nation wages two wars right now, most of us are unaffected, going through our lives without thinking about the sacrifices being made on our behalf in those faraway places and here at home by both the troops and their families.

Today it's easy to remember.  Let's try to remember every other day, too.


  1. Many years ago I worked in a retirement home as an activity director and most of the residents were Japanese and inturned during the war. I got many of them to tell me their stories. There were also vets there who shared some of their letters and journals with me. It was an incredible experience and it taught me a valuable lesson, it taught me that the cliche is true---everyone has a story to tell.

  2. My stepdad fought in the Korean conflict. He never spoke about it as I was growing up. Later, toward the end of his life, he would wake up crying with nightmares. It took me a while to realize it was related to his time in combat. No wonder he drank--it was his way of coping with the trauma, and an acceptable way at that as long as he didn't get into trouble I suppose. There was so much I didn't know about him, that he kept to himself. What a burden to carry.

    Thank you for this thoughtful post.

  3. Giving people space to tell their is incredible what we can learn about others.

  4. I did the same thing, Lisa. Interviewed dozens of people for a book I was writing. But from the other perspective -- people living in Germany while war raged around them and they didn't know what to do. How to survive. It was an incredible experience. It also made me realizer that the only bad guys are the ones who call the shots, allowing atrocities to take place in the name of honour.

    Gratitude and love to those who must take these conflicting ideals and fight for them no matter what. Relief that in the case of WW11, the right side won.

    The Middle Ages

  5. I know of no one within my family who served. but i honour those who did and do. and i thank a soldier when ever i see one.

  6. Thank you for this thoughtful post Lisa. I will be thinking of veterans today, the ones I know and the ones I don't know.

  7. I am pretty jaded on this topic. I have a post up today w quotes from one of the most decorated Marines in history. Smedley Butler. Later he wrote a piece called *WAR IS A RACKET*.
    He talked about how war really is all for the profiteers. But he offered solutions to war, also included in the post.
    He said those selling stuff, and those deciding on wars should be made to make the same pay as soldiers. After all they were not taking the risk of their lives, just a substantial pay cut. he figures that alone would put an end to wars.
    I agree.
    But also, he goes on to say only the soldiers who would fight the wars would vote on if they would go to war.
    I have a huge respect for those who serve.
    But honestly, a part of me feels like they prey on children (my kid started getting recruitment junk mail at age 15).
    They use them in paws, they are willing to risk & sacrifice their lives for their need to get their wars on.

    This is the place I should insert the song WAR
    Huh! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!

    I fought hard to get recruiters out of the high school. In classrooms w captive audiences, in the cafeteria... free reign to get gullible children to sign the dotted line.

    We even took it a step further & got permission to have anti recruitment tabling.

    People need to be fully informed about making such a huge/adult choice.

    If the soldiers laid down their arms & refused to fight, you think Congress & the President would
    suit up & go fight in the rugged Afghanistan mountains?

    You think John Boehner would put down his golf club & pick up an AK 47?

    OK I am not at all neutral about this.
    War sucks & most Veterans would be the first to say so.

    Plus they did their damndest to try to take my kid as one of their pawns.

    Call me a peace monger, I'd take it as a compliment.

  8. Regardless of how I feel about war and our insatiable thirst for oil, I will honor and respect those who have given their lives for something they strongly believed in.

  9. You know, I don't think that's so unusual. When my grandpa died (a WW2 vet who'd been stationed in the South Pacific) we heard a number of stories he'd never shared with his family. I think there is a vested interest in keeping the precious life they are BUILDING separate from the hell of war. But you're right, the stories should be heard.

  10. My mother's oldest brother joined the Navy just a couple days after Pearl Harbor. After boot camp at Great Lakes in Chicago, Eugene (or Junior, as he was known in the family) literally disappeared until a couple days after VE day, when he called his parents. He was in Switzerland. He had been in intelligence (and I think the OSS, for various reasons).

    My mother's youngest brother was in Marine intelligence. Some of his stories are interesting, and some day, if I have the money, I'm going to do some digging and check and see how many of them are real.

    My father was in the Army at the tag end of WWII, and I wrote about his time in the service today.

  11. Not wanting to discuss war experiences seems to be a common thing. Too painful to remember, no doubt, but not talking about it must contribute hugely to PTSD and feelings of isolation. Harry Patch, the WWI survivor who died last year at 111, didn't really start talking about his war experiences until the end of his life.

    I just read The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank) for the Book Club that I've organized for my 12 year old. Most of the girls were entirely ignorant of concentration camps and other war atrocities. It's hard to imagine that state of innocent ignorance . . . but as you said, we civilians all walk around in some state of obliviousness.

  12. We should all be grateful for their service.

  13. I'd have to write a post of my own to describe some of the WWII stories my parents told me. My mother worked in a munitions factory while my father was in the British Navy for 6 years and gone most of that time. It changed them both.

    My own memory is of a neighbor who was also a prisoner in a German camp where they removed all his teeth and replaced them with wooden dentures. His favorite trick when I was 4 was to turn away and replace his real dentures with those and then turn to smile at me. I think he suffered some damage too.

    If the powers that be held a war and nobody showed up that would be fine with me.

  14. Boarding a plane yesterday at 10:00 PM I was between two of our finest, in their camouflage, noticing how the pattern is pixilated (thinking how weird it was, this visible result of 21st century meeting WW II). And as we all shuffled down the skyway to the slowly loading Airbus 320, I was overshadowed by a sense of how much these two young men were giving up to serve others, and to uphold principles most of us take for granted, in parts of the world where they kill you for wearing that pixilated cloth and the badges of honor these two wore with simple pride and candor. It made me very quiet - and grateful in a way that was like a prayer.

  15. It's very important that we take time to stop and remember all of the men and women who have served our county and all of the sacrafices they've made for our freedom.

    Thank you for this post!

  16. Ooops! "served our country" [sorry for the type-o!]

  17. As always a beautiful and thought provoking post! Thank you! :)


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