Monday, May 31, 2010


Memorial Day is meant to be a day to honor soldiers fallen in battle. On neither my mother's or father's side were there any deaths in battle, though my father and two of his brothers served in WWII. In my family we have always used Memorial Day to commemorate the dead, no matter how they died. We have strewn silk flower arrangements the length and breadth of Mason County and across the river in Aberdeen. I have not been able to make the trip the last two times because of work, but my mother and brother will be going.

I was confused about war as a child. I knew my father had been a P.O.W. My brother told me that the episode about Sergeant York on the 60's TV drama Combat was really about our Dad. They had to change his name for TV. But the story was true, he assured me. Decades later when Jonathan Bolt came to Bardstown to help mount his rewrite of The Stephen Foster Story, I was thunderstruck while listening to his actor war-stories to discover that he had played that Sergeant York. It's one of those serendipitous moments that one feels sure is meaningful to the scheme and design of their life, though in this instance as in most similar ones, I have not discovered what that meaning could be.

I also knew that my Uncle Paul had been wounded, and that my Uncle Bill was not allowed to go for health reasons, but served in some civilian capacity. I understood that this was a source of shame for him. When I asked my mother where her brother, the other Uncle Bill, had served, she told me he hadn't. Not anywhere? That was embarassing. More confusing was the knowledge that neither grandfather had fought in any war. There just wasn't one for them to fight, Mom explained. I felt sorry for them. How humiliating. All men were supposed to be soldiers. My mother's position that they were lucky and grateful was perplexing.

Dad's war experiences were told in small clips here and there. He would never sit and spin stories. Something would remind him, and he would speak a sentence or two.

"I made them Germans laugh. I'd say "Ich bin deiner dolmacher..." and they'd just howl." This is a lot funnier if you know it was said with a heavy Kentucky accent and that "dolmetscher" means interpreter.

Or watching Hogan's Heros... "We had all that stuff. 'course not the tunnels or we'da left. But them radios and that. Them Germans was just that dumb."

"They got that Russian boy out of the jeep and just shot him. Just shot him. They hated them Russians."

Sergeant Ralph Henderson was the prison barber and helped to raise potatoes and make them into Vodka. It sounds like coping, but I have a letter he wrote to his mother from the camp. "I would give my eyes to be in good old America."

He managed more details about his time in North Africa. He and Uncle Paul served in the 1st Infantry, which a friend had to tell me was The Big Red One commemorated in the film. I have the one. The red patch from his uniform. I have no possession that I would not part with before that. Vivid in my mind are his words and voice telling of his disobeying orders and carrying his wounded brother down a mountain and away from the fighting. Uncle Paul was sent away to be patched up, only to eventually wind up on Normandy Beach, shot again. Dad wouldn't know this of course till later, because he was at Buchenwald. Barbering. Farming. Distilling. Watching butchery.

I saw a quote this morning that was to the effect that all soldiers are wounded in battle. I would go further and say that a part of any soldier dies in a war. A farmboy joined the army right before Pearl Harbor because he needed a job. He came home with night terrors, a drinking problem and a bad heart... and memories he couldn't talk about except in clips. He built a solid life for us, but was rarely peaceful. He could not be comfortable in a bed, but preferred an army cot. He swept up ants and other vermin and carefully put them outside, because "... everything loves its life." He swore that if my brother ever got the idea of joining the army he would "...knock him in the head, throw him in the trunk and drive to Canada."

Dad would say that we should be thinking about those other boys on Memorial Day. The ones that did not come home. But he would be smiling that small sideways smile that I inherited and secretly be pleased as punch that some fuss was made on his behalf. So... thanks Dad. For what you gave and what was taken. For coming back and fighting the everyday fight in the America you helped to preserve. You are my Memorial Day memory.