two days later. it was impossible, try as i might, to get any of them to talk about it. they’d say, “i made some good friends,” or “i was lucky to have seen some of the world,” or “i’m right in the middle of ______, why don’t you go see what your ________ is up to?” even a child understands soon enough that there are some subjects that are off limits, that having your questions rebuffed, evaded and side-swiped by the thinnest of excuses means to let it go. of course, a negative is no reason to really let it go, but perhaps to set it aside for awhile and come back to it later. but no matter how long i waited, no matter how i old i was, no matter if i thought i might be able to squeeze it out of them, none of my male relatives would talk about the wars they had participated in.
two days later. my paternal grandfather fought in the first world war. shrapnel took out a piece of his skull which the surgeons replaced with a metal plate (i always envisioned it looking like a dinner plate; sitting on his lap and asking him if i could feel it and he’d tip his bald head toward me and i’d reach up and pet his head, all of it felt the same to me, how could a dinner plate be in there, wouldn’t it make its shape known?) he was quiet by nature, and the wound and the repair reinforced that. he was slow to speak, but it came out as thoughtful; everyone he knew waited respectfully for him to finish. his barbershop around the corner from their home was a meeting place for other veterans, but when i would go over there to help him sweep up or clean the combs and brushes, there was never any talk of the war, just the smell of pipe tobacco and witch hazel.
two days later. my father fought in vietnam (after postings in post-war germany where i was acquired). he took three tours. i wish i could tell you more about his time there, but all i can do is report on the results. he was angry and cruel, treating his second wife and his three children, his mother and father, with little respect and no compassion. he died alone.
two days later. both my maternal great-uncle and my mother’s brother were in the navy; uncle scrub (the great- one, the cowboy, the eternal bachelor) served in the pacific during world war two, my uncle served his time between wars–there were times when you’d think he’d give up a little more information, his son and i waiting at his feet, expectant, wanting to know more, but invariably the subject would be changed and we’d have to make up our own stories about war (and peace.)
two days later. my mother was a veteran (women’s army corps). she served between wars, enlisting in ’49 and discharged in ’51 when she married my father (the sergeant). she was more forthcoming about her time in military service, but being a woman, her role was circumscribed by her sex; she spent her time in the service as a telephone operator. when i was 18, it was the last year of the draft, my number was in the 300s; the day i got my number she cried with relief. i had been prepared to flee to canada, become a monk (in spite of not being catholic–but i thought those peace-loving monks who made the jam in upstate new york seemed like a good alternative to serving in vietnam.)
two days later. my step-father was a marine private in italy the last year of world war two, an army sergeant during korea and an air force sergeant for three tours of vietnam. one time, after my mother had died, he did share slides of his tour of duty in alaska post-vietnam, but when pressed to talk about or show me slides of his time in vietnam, he demurred. you could tell by the look on his face and the fact that he tried to hide his emotions that it was something he did not want to relive. i did not press him.
days such as veterans day are there for the rest of us–those of us for whom war is a concept and not a reality (btw, did you take advantage of the veterans day sales at macy’s?) it is a day that except for the president laying a wreath at the ____ of the unknown soldier or your congresswoman riding in a parade of war veterans down main street (which, for the most part, only happen in cities and towns where the war machine does its harvesting of future veterans–the bread basket states of the plains, the depressed industrial areas, the poor south) goes unremarked upon, unnoticed, nothing but a day off. most of us go on our way without a thought to what it might mean to be a veteran. and i don’t think we ever will, two days later.