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Thinking and Thanking

TALKING TO MYSELF: 11 Nov 2012 I am late to the party, and only now am getting around to reading Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 best-seller, Unbroken.  Veteran’s Day seems a good time to call this remarkable story to your attention, if you, like me, have not yet read it. It’s about Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini’s odyssey in World War II, and I am reminded once again that I am probably not made of the right stuff to survive such challenges. I am grateful that others have stepped forward on my behalf.

Read the NYT review of Unbroken here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/books/review/Margolick-t.html?pagewant...

I also recommend this haunting story written by Becky Todd York in today’s Lexington Herald-Leader. It details her quest to learn why her father’s life was spared after he literally was brought before a firing squad for execution during the waning days of the war in Austria. Others that day, in that place, were not so lucky. Read Todd York's story here:

http://www.kentucky.com/2012/11/11/2403597/a-veterans-day-remembrance-my...

WWII was my parents’ war, the one that defined not only their generation but the decades that followed its conclusion. I grew up in its long shadow of patriotic pride, watching movies made in the forties, hearing tales of gas and food rationing and romantic stories of furlough elopements. Oddly, I don’t recall those who had lived through the war, talking much about its atrocities. My understanding of its awfulness came in brief images or phrases. Shell-shocked, they called my aunt’s brother-in-law, who lived out his life at the Veterans Hospital in Lexington, and once my mother spoke of finding my grandmother weeping beside her radio over the plight of the Russians during Hitler’s invasion. Occasionally, there were references to local men who had died in the war, and in high school I read The Dairy of Ann Frank, and began to learn about the holocaust that devastated the Jewish population of Europe. My mother would only say that it seemed like the war would “go on forever.” 

It was easier for most to talk about the army’s long lines or to recall humorous anecdotes about comrades. Many Kentucky boys called into service had never been out of the state before, and meeting men from other parts of the country with different regional accents and backgrounds was a cultural education. My father’s best friend during his Army Air Corps days, however, was an Ohio farm boy whose life was not terribly different than his, before or after the war. Every Christmas for forty-five years, Weil’s holiday greetings would arrive in the mail with a long letter enclosed. Then, Daddy would sit down to write his only letter of the year, a long response to Weil’s. If Weil had a first or last name, I never heard it. He was only Weil. A few years after my father’s death in a tractor accident on our farm, Weil, too, died in an almost identical incident. I don’t know what to make of that coincidence, but it seems as though it should symbolize something.

 If my father’s generation talked little about their war to children like me, the local people I knew who served in World War I shared even less. In fairness, though, I didn’t think to ask any questions until they were very, very old. Then my ninety-something Uncle Murf Hudson told me about the Army’s instructions to put gas masks on their horses before they put them on themselves. He would laugh when he told this, at the notion that a horse’s life seemed more valuable than his own. He, himself, was gassed, and sent home to die on a military disability pension. He chose not to die, he said with a smile. He, or maybe my mother, told me about his brother, my G-Uncle Dick Hudson, who nearly died of flu in a European hospital during the pandemic that decimated American soldiers in 1918.  And then there was Ernest Carroll, the shell-shocked housepainter who walked the roads of my childhood. I’ve written about  him before in my essay, “Mr. Carroll.” Ernest volunteered to tell me about his experience in World War I without my even asking. Except he didn’t tell me he was talking about the war. Maybe he didn’t know he was. He called it his train trip through Hell, and he took me along for the ride.

The War in Southeast Asia was my generation’s war. After forty years, I still cannot think about it without seeing the smiling face of sweet William Lee Juett who came home to Owen County from Viet Nam in a military casket. He was a couple of years ahead of me in high school and rode my bus on the long trip to our consolidated county school. Tall and gangly and quiet, in my memory he was always wearing his Future Farmers of America jacket and was always smiling. Recently, I found myself in the odd position of talking about that war with the 20-year-old Cambodian-born boy who polishes my fingernails. He is smart, studying to be a construction engineer in college, and is an American entrepreneur, already the owner/manager of his first nail shop in the strip mall near my home. I like young “Kevin” as he calls himself, a lot. But he’d never heard of the Cambodian killing fields or the Kymer Rouge regime. He seemed to know almost nothing about my war. I said no more, feeling like a dinosaur caught in a time machine, but I thought of William Lee. He would like Kevin too, I think.

It is easier to thank a veteran on Veterans Day for their sacrifices than it is to think about those sacrifices. Today I choose to do both.

©Copyright Georgia Green Stamper 2012

Georgia's newest collection of essays, Butter in the Morning, will be available December, 2012.