Monday, May 28, 2012
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: We try not to be too political here,so let's not argue wars or where which troops are fighting which other troops.
But on Memorial Day, how can we not think about it? It crossed my mind to talk about war movies, but then--I thought about my father, at age 18 or so, being sent from high school in Indiana overseas to fight in World War Two. You have to know my Dad is the most thoughtful, artistic, tolerant, poetic, gentle person you could ever met. A musician. A writer. I simply cannot picture him with a weapon, a member of the army infantry fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and taken prisoner and marched barefoot through the snow and put in a Nazi prison camp. But that's what happened.
He got a purple heart. My little dad.
If I've told you this story, forgive me. But on Memorial Day, the goal is to remember. So it's important to tell and re-tell and make sure the memories aren't lost.
A few years ago, Dad and his wife Juliet (now both retired from the foreign service) rented a house, as usual, in western Massachusetts (near Tanglewood) for part of the summer. Jonathan and I went to visit for awhile. And in the library of the house they rented, Dad found a tattered and worn book of poetry, one of those paperback Untermeyer anthologies.
He pulled it out of the shelf, and tears came to his eyes.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"This is the same edition I carried with me throughout the war," he said. (He NEVER talks about the war. Won't.)
"You carried a book of poetry in the war?" I was trying to figure that out.
"Yes," he said. "To remind myself there is beauty in the world."
So. War stories. Was anyone in your family in the war? Any war? How did that change them--or you? If not--do you watch war movies? Why?
JAN BROGAN Wow, Hank. That is a beautiful story. And being a WWII buff, who - mostly because of my husband - has seen every bit of footage on WWII - I am unbelievably impressed. I even wrote my sixth grade report on the Battle of the Bulge, and seen over and over the footage of the army making their way through France to the battle and thought what must it have been like, sleeping in the snow and waking up to do battle?
HANK: I know. I think about it all the time.
JAN: Anyway, both my parents were in WWII. My father an Army captain, my mother a lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps. My mother took care of the men returning from the Pacific with TB and other infectious diseases. Because she didn't talk about her service at all, I didn't realize how important it was to her until she was about to die. Then as she divvied up her charitable contributions it all had to go the veterans. I keep her dog tags in my jewelry box and consider it her finest piece of jewelry.
RHYS BOWEN: My dad was in World War II, in the desert fighting Rommel. He fought at El Alamein, but from what he told us, he actually enjoyed some things about it--the camaraderie of men together. He was a great athlete and played cricket for his batallion. He also picked up a lot of Arabic and years later he and my mother went on holiday to Tunisia and the hotel staff were amazed he could speak to them. They got wonderful service.
My brother was in a very different sort of war. In the RAF he was sent to Aden, South Yemen. Very like Iraq today. They'd go out on patrol and a sniper would kill the man in front of him. Not good for the nerves. Both he and my dad are gentle people. My brother is about to be ordained an Anglican priest!
War is so stupid. As the song says "When will they ever learn?"
DEBORAH CROMBIE: What lovely stories, Jan and Hank. And Rhys, there always seemed something slightly glamorous about the British campaign in North Africa--maybe it was the movies...
My father was in his mid-thirties when the US entered WWII, with a business and a toddler (my older brother) so wasn't called up. And he was such a gentle man--I think the experience would have destroyed him if he'd survived.
HANK: Debs, there's a line for a book...
DEBS: I had two uncles who served in the Navy. One was stationed in New Zealand for at least part of the war, and could never afterwards bear the smell of lamb. Neither of them ever talked about their wars.
I've been fascinated since I was a child (Anglophile that I am) by the British experiences in WWI and WWII, particularly as they affected the British at home. One of my books centers around children who were evacuated from London during the Blitz, another around a Jewish couple who come to London as refugees from Nazi Germany.
LUCY BURDETTE: I hate war and I won't watch war movies and I cannot imagine psychologically surviving the horror of any of it. But I make myself watch the honor roll of soldiers that the PBS Newshour runs at the end of their program every week--so I don't forget that the deaths we continue to hear about are real people with real families.
All that said, my father was also a WWII veteran. (That's him, above, in Wales.) We have paperwork that documents how he went down to the recruiting station in New Jersey and signed up. But then his mother (a VERY strong personality), marched him back down to rescind his application. He signed up again the following year (1943?) and served in the Army corps of engineers in England and France. He was a kindhearted peace-loving guy too, but I have the impression that this was one of the most powerful experiences of his life. He always felt connected to his fellow soldiers--they had yearly reunions until they got too old to travel. And one of them hobbled up to visit him in the nursing facility just months before he died (in January.) When he sat down to hand write his memoirs, most of the vignettes were about the war--so much for our perspective that we took top honors! We haven't had time to sort through all that stuff, but I look forward to trying to understand how the war affected him.
HALLIE EPHRON: These are wonderful stories. My dad never served -- I think it was because he'd had rheumatic fever as a kid, or maybe it was flat feet. I wish he was around to ask. My husband's father worked in a Providence shipyard for his service, and came away with no fond memories of Providence and a lifelong aversion to cold.
ROSEMARY HARRIS: My father was 19 and spent the war in Alaska (probably watching for Russians like you-know-who.)He never talked too much about those years. He was on Adak in the Aleutians. Funnily enough I've since learned that Earlene Fowler's father was there as was Dashiell Hammett who wrote a newsletter for the men. There's a website devoted to the men and women who spent the war there.
As it happens, an elderly relative just passed away and one of the things that came to me in a box filled with old snapshots and letters were my father's dogtags. That's a Saint Theresa medal.
JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Lucy, I am a member of "one of those families" you mentioned. My father, Lt. Melvin Spencer, served during a different conflict - the Cold War. He was an Air Force pilot, assigned to a Strategic Air Command bomber wing at Plattsburgh AFB when he met and married my mother, who was a coed at the State University there.
Tensions between the USSR and the United States were at a peak in the early 60's, and the USAF was at the front line of defense. Bombers stood fueled and ready on the flight line apron round the clock, with crews rotating in and out of specially connected staging areas so that the enormous planes could be airborne and on their way to Russia within a matter of minutes. The day I was born my father was in "the bullpen." His replacement pilot arrived in time for him to get to the base hospital, but he was still in full fight gear the first time he held his baby girl.
He never returned. One of the B-48's systems - radio? Electrical? - malfunctioned. Flying in the dark, in a snowstorm, the four-man crew never realized they were below altitude. The remains of the ship were found strewn across the face of Mount Wright, the second highest peak in the Adirondacks. This is the memorial placed at the crash site.
I think it's enormously important to be aware to the cost of war to those who pay the ultimate price. But it's also important to remember that for every name on the casualty list, there are a score of others whose lives will never be the same - parents and siblings, husbands or wives, children and friends.
HANK: Julia. I am speechless. And So grateful to know you all. So what about you, Reds? War stories? This is the day to tell them...and to say thank you.