Driving home from Portland this evening, I was listening to OPB. There were two excellent radio essays about Veteran’s Day. One described a new literary magazine for writing by veterans and their families; it’s to be called O’Dark Thirty. That’s a phrase I learned from my pal Tom who was career Air Force pilot. The speaker; founder of the magazine, spoke about how writing about a traumatic experience could help a person “control the memories.”
The other radio essay was a piece about hearing stories of veterans, and about the power of the experience of military service. At the end, the speaker suggested that the best way to honor our veterans is to ask them to tell their stories.
When I was growing up in the 50’s in a small eastern Oregon town, memories of World War 2 were fresh for many. There were still polarities in Milton-Freewater between the men who had served and those who had not, and there were stories of deprivation and loss in every family. My father and my uncle George both belonged to the VFW – Veterans of Foreign Wars, which seemed to me to be mostly a place to dine with neighbors on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Georgie went to meetings, my Dad did not.
I don’t remember Georgie talking about his experience in the army. He would say, “I was in Patton’s Army”, as if that was enough.. Many years later I learned about what it meant for soldiers to have fought in North Africa and up through Italy in that famous campaign.
My father served in the army, but in Iran. He was a welder, and worked on the railroad that was under construction through Iran to supply the Russians from the south. He had a small box of mementos, one of which was the insignia from his uniform, which showed a Arab cutlass over an shield – the Persian Gulf Command, 4711 Railroad Battalion. The town, Awaz, where he served is now in Iraq – part of a territorial transfer after their war in the 80’s – near Basra.
There were many stories from my dad about his service… he told me “I was a big man… they would kill a goat when I came into a village.” I know that he would bring a portable welding kit, and spend hours making useful household items from gas cans or other salvage, and drinking glasses from bottles for people in the villages. “You just tie a wire around a bottle, and tap it with your torch, then smooth the edges down nice….”
Whenever a television show came about World War 2, my dad would get up, and walk over to the TV, and turn it off. He would look and my brother and me and say “It’s the only damned war they’ve got and they will keep fighting it until the can find a way to make another one.”
Here’s a picture of Georgie, taken about the time the war began. He was a cowboy in Montana when the war started, and met my dad’s youngest sister Mae at a dance at the veteran’s hospital in Walla Walla sometime near the end of the war. When I could, I never thought to ask him how he got from Italy to a hospital in Walla Walla…..