My Father Moved through Dooms of War

D Day Invasion in "Saving Private Ryan"

D Day Invasion in “Saving Private Ryan”

70th Anniversary of D Day

I grew up hearing a lot about D Day. Seventy years ago my father knew that something was up when, reading For Whom the Bell Tolls while doing night guard duty in Coventry, England, he looked up and saw the sky filled with airplanes. The date was June 5, 1944.

My father would be dropped off two weeks later on a Utah Beach that by then was relatively safe. Last June, when he emerged from temporary dementia caused by a kidney infection, he had a flashback to the night he spent on the beach and to the German planes that were flying overhead.

I’m not sure why this would have been the memory that came to mind when he was reestablishing connection with reality. Maybe that occasion 70 years ago was marked by his sense that the war had finally become real. He and five fellow soldiers had been assigned to administer the city of Avranches in Normandy, and they were expected to wend their way through the countryside and catch up with the American troops that had gone on ahead to liberate it. As the interpreter, my father played a significant role.

When the memory of those days came back, my father was enthralled to have recovered his cognitive functions. So enthralled, in fact, that in the weeks that followed, he became obsessed with “telling the truth.” I thought of my father’s favorite ant-war poem when he talked this way—“I mean the truth untold,/The pity of war, the pity war distilled” (Wilfred Owen, “Strange Meeting”)—although in my father’s case it was the truth about all the sex that soldiers were having in first France and then Germany. I’ve written about what the proximity of death and sex might have meant to him.

Mentoring a project on World War II vet Kurt Vonnegut this past year has given me extra insight into how much vets were silenced when they returned home. They were silenced not only by a society that wanted to hear only superficial war stories but also by their own inability to fully process and convey what they had seen. As my student noted in his senior project, it took  29 years and an elaborate coded language (science fiction) before Vonnegut could directly talk about what occurred to him in the firebombing of Dresden. My father didn’t go through anything so traumatic, but he once wrote a story for his Carleton College literary magazine about a virginal soldier getting multiple cases of venereal disease in various French brothels. He claimed that President Larry Gould “nearly threw me out of the college” and that the English Department had to come to his defense.

(Come to think of it, while my father only had sex once during the war and didn’t get an STD, the story captures his own loss of innocence and how the war changed him dramatically. To the horror of his teetotalling Evanston family, he returned to the States drinking, smoking and having voted for Roosevelt.)

My father conveyed some of the problems of articulation several years later in a poem prompted by a question put to him by my son Toby (changed to “Mike” in the poem):

The Greatest Generation

“What was the Second World War like?”
I am asked by my youngest grandson, Mike,
Who has just remembered that he has
To write a paper for his English class
And hopes his grandfather will tell him a story
Like Private Ryan, full of guts and glory.
“That’s easy,” I answer—I am the One
Who Was There, the Expert, the Veteran–
(Who has read in the paper, by the way,
That thousands of vets die every day),
“It was boring, mostly,” I say, “and very
Gung-ho.”  I think.  “It was pretty scary.
And long.  And the longer it got, the more idiotic
It seemed.”  I stop.  “It was patriotic.”

How to tell the kid the exciting news
That we survived on sex and booze.
And hated the Army and hated the War
And hoped They knew what we were fighting for . . . .
And I remember my buddy, Mac,
Who got shot up in a tank attack,
And Sturiano, my closest friend . . .

It is still going on.  How will it end?

“It was people surrounded by dying men.”

“But what was it like?” asks Mike again.

I note in passing, given all the garbage that is being dumped by right wingers on recently released P.O.W. Bowe Bergdahl, that if we didn’t rescue Americans that “hated the Army and hated the War,” we would leave a lot of people behind. Such sentiments would also mean disregarding Wildfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Eric Maria Remarque, Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Vonnegut–and those are only some of the famous vets.

With my father, it took a bout with dementia to unlock something that he had kept stored up all these years.  Upon recovery, he became (I think I’ve used this Prufrock analogy before) “Lazarus come back from the dead, come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all.” He saw this second chance at sanity as giving him the opportunity and the responsibility to cut through hypocritical facades and show reality as it really was. He was like Hickey in The Iceman Cometh.

And it wasn’t only the facade of  World War II heroism that he wanted to explode. He also wanted to tell the truth about the sexual escapades of all the “holier than thou” Episcopalians at the University of the South where he taught for 35 years. He turned to a former Sewanee student who had written such an article, John Jeremiah Johnson of the Paris Review, to see if he would help him write a book on the subject.

And then, to our relief, he calmed down and life went back to normal. In July he was interviewed by the Smithsonian about his Civil Rights experiences and in August he contracted pneumonia and died. But throughout that summer, which I’m deeply grateful to have spent with him, I gained new insight into what members of “the greatest generation” went through, both in the war and after. Such experiences would make an indelible impact on American life.


Related Posts

 Through World War II My Father Carried Poetry 

The Meaning of Soldiers and Sex

What Light Verse Meant to My Father

Lesson of War: Fear+Fear=Hate

Drones Put Heaven in a Rage

A “Greatest Generation” Vet Reflects

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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