Here we are once again at Memorial Day. It’s probably the easiest celebrated, but least honored of our holidays.
By the time Monday gets here, many of us have forgotten why we are even having it, except as an excuse to bbq, swim, drink or get ready to enjoy summer.
In my generation, everyone’s father had been in World War II. We grew up hearing some of their stories, seeing Combat on TV or watching the many movies made about the topic. It seemed familiar and following that, boring.
Many of our fathers only talked about the superficial things that went on in the war. How much they drank; how my uncle dragged a mattress around Europe along with a dog he picked up; what it was like to go into a port on time off.
Not so much about the real things. My father joined the Merchant Marines when he was 17. He said poor eyesight ruled out the Navy and he didn’t want to be drafted into the Army. It seemed to me it was an easier option. I knew he sailed, but it didn’t seem as impressive as other people’s dads who were in the Navy or Army. None of my contemporaries were familiar with that branch of the service. They didn’t make movies about it and there weren’t any heroes talked about from the Merchant Marines. They didn’t even get the benefits other GIs got after the war.
Dad did not say much to counter these impressions. He said his father had a heart attack shortly after he joined, worried about the danger his son faced. Later in life I came to realize how dangerous a thing it was. Early in the war German boats plied the Atlantic looking for ships like Dad’s. They wanted to blow them up to stop goods and arms from reaching allies. The Germans were quite successful. Dad faced the fear of being blown up every day and night. He didn’t talk much about it.
Nor did my uncle, D Day plus 5. He stormed the beaches of Normandy, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and liberated a concentration camp. I wish he had talked more about it.I never heard a peep, except whispers from my aunt about how terrible it was. The Greatest Generation erred in not telling their family members the horrors they saw. It made their effort smaller. It made freedom seem cheaper and less endangered. Their modesty coddled the next generation and diminished our patriotism.
Our grandparents were modest, too. Both of mine were in World War I. My father’s father did not serve overseas. He was a Greek immigrant and earned his citizenship by enlisting. He was stationed here first as a guard. One day it was snowing. The person who was supposed to relieve him never showed up. He collapsed in the snow, damaging his eyes. He only had about 10% of his vision after that. I don’t remember that he complained about the high price of his citizenship or cursed his new country.
My mother’s father joined the Marines when he was about 18. He had been orphaned at 9 with three younger brothers. After the orphanage kicked you out at age 14, you were on your own. He did a few odd jobs, rode the rails with the hobos for awhile, then joined up. After Parris Island he shipped out to France. He became an expert marksman. He didn’t talk much about it either, except to tell us how their tongues got black from drinking so much French wine and how it was so cold they had to stack dead bodies like wood.
I imagine a lot of our soldiers returning from conflicts today are equally modest about their service. The Navy Seals who got Bin Laden won’t be appearing on talk shows or writing books about their exploits. They won’t be headed to Hollywood to have their feats broadcast all over the world. It says a lot about the American character that our soldiers do not return from war boasting, bragging or loaded down with loot and spoils. We’re not that kind of people; we never were.
Everyone’s story is important. I hope on Memorial Day we stop to hear a few and thank them and honor them.