“Pawpaw, tell me a war story”. These were the words that were often spoken in innocence while sitting my grandfather’s lap. As a child I didn’t really understand the hesitation before he would reply. Forsplit second the look in my grandfather’s eyes would shift into that “Thousand Meter Stare”. He would look down at me and the familiar gentle demeanor would return and the stories would begin.
I was used to the edited for T.V. versions of all the classic World War Two movies and stories. The Big Red 1 comes to mind. There was also reruns of Hogan’s Heroes and we would laugh at Sergeant Shultz as Hogan outsmarted the Nazis again. My grandfather’s war stories were always about the funny things that happened in camp. One that stands out in my memory was about when he was the new guy in the unit. He got into argument with another GI and it escalated into an all out brawl. It was dark and as they fought they fell into a coal shaft. The other men broke up the fight and when everyone calmed down he learned that the man he was fighting with was his new commander. The two men were best friends for the rest of their lives. There was a point in history when the natural outcome of a fight was normally reconciliation and many friendships started with such a story.
I remember another war story about sharing rations with refugees. A young widow with children was given a few canned goods.
One more than one occasion the stories were told while I was setting up toy soldiers. Green plastic army men who would be positioned in formations around the living room as he spoke. I would take time to set them up and make bomb noises as I knocked them all down. Pawpaw never allowed me to see any discomfort in his eyes. He just continued to tell about the friends he made and he focused on what positive stories that he had.
What I didn’t really understand at such a young age was that my sound effects that I made with my mouth were probably making him relive the shelling event that ended his service. He carried the shrapnel in his leg and neck for the rest of his life. In fact as I look back at my memories of pawpaw’s war stories they always included lessons about how precious life is and how blessed we are to have it in the way we did.
June sixth is a special day in history. It’s the day that so many people made the ultimate sacrifice for liberty and freedom of the world. But I fear, that amidst all the ceremonies and fine speeches that we risk turning history into a game played with toy soldiers. Every year we set them up and knock them down. And when the game is over we put them back into their box until the next calibration. These soldiers are not plastic. And every day the box gets a little lighter than the day before. Soon, the box will be completely empty. It’s awesome to set aside special days to honor the things that were done to prevent evil from taking over the globe but these men and women are still with us every day. I have to believe that they have more stories to tell besides the war stories. My grandfather did. I lost my pawpaw in the Fall of 1985. There was so many stories that we could have written together if only we had the chance. By the time this article is published the D Day celebrations will be over. But if you have anyone from that generation make an effort to spend time with them. Even if that person isn’t a veteran they’re going to have something to share. If they’re healthy enough to go outside then help them build a new story. One that lets them know that they still matter. Give them some peace stories to tell.
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