Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Suffering in Silence

My father was a man of few words. Even so, we (my two brothers, my sister and myself), always knew he loved us. Mother, on the other hand, seemed to have a difficult time praising us and never seemed to really appreciate when we could accomplish. That was certainly difficult, but with my father, you always knew he supported you and always had the nicest things to say (although never much), and the greatest appreciation for even the smallest creative endeavor.

A few months ago, I watched the PBS re-broadcast of "The War". I'd watched it first run and it made me sad, because it reminded me of my father. When I watched it again, it still brought on a bought of melancholy, but this time I was able to recall things from my childhood that I hadn't thought about in a long time. Things that underscored why my dad was so quiet, yet so patient and loving. He always supported my creative efforts, whether it was through writing or through visual arts. I miss him every day. Here are some of my memories.

When I was very young, probably five or six, I sat down at the breakfast table with my parents and told my father I'd had a dreamt of him the night before. Daddy never talked much, but he was curious about my dream. So I explained.

I said it was a short dream (or seemed so to a child), and that all I could remember was that he had been wading through mud with his arms up. I proceeded to put my arms up, shoulder height, bent inward at the elbow. He was carrying something, something long and thin, although I didn't know what it was and there were other men with him, whom I did not know.

Both my parents were quiet for a few moments. My dad didn't say anything, just continued with his breakfast. My mother said (and I'm reiterating as best I can remember): "Your daddy was in the war. World War II in the Pacific. He marched through a lot of swamps and things."

"You mean you really did that?" I remember asking.

"I did that sometimes." Was all my dad said.

This was the early 1960s, before the horrors of Vietnam were splashed all over television for everyone to see, every night, in full black and white (or worse, for some, color). So my subconscious wasn't picking up images I'd seen on television.

What strikes me now, and has for many, many years, is not that I had this somewhat 'paranormal dreaming experience', but that my father didn't seem to want to talk about it.
Actually, he seldom, if really ever, talked about his war experiences at all. The only other time I remember him 'talking' about it occurred, again, when I was probably about the same age.

Fascinated with a world map hanging on our hallway wall, I pointed out New Zealand (not knowing what it was called then) and asked if we could go to 'the boot'. My dad said "I was there for awhile." As usual, my mother filled in (some of) the blanks by telling me he'd been there and many other places in the Pacific during 'The War'. She pointed at some other locations on the big, colorful map, one was New Guinea, the others just looked like small dots with long names to me then.

Again, from dad, silence.

In the tiny 'entrance room' to our house there stood a small dresser with three or four drawers. I opened a drawer one day and found a stack of black and white photographs. All of them featured my father and other men, all dressed alike and doing various and sundry things that I didn't understand. A few of the photos included bare-breasted women in clothing that seemed strange to me. These were not porno photos, nobody was doing anything even remotely 'naughty', but mother caught me with them, took them away and said I shouldn't look at them again. When asked what they were, her response was: "They're your dad's pictures of 'The War'."

I don't know what happened to them, but I wish I had them. They would be of inestimable value to me today.

The reason I'm remembering these snippets of the past is because I watched Ken Burns' latest documentary 'The War'. This segment included much footage of some of the early battles in the Pacific, including Guadalcanal and, briefly at the end, Bougainville. I know my father was at both those places--not because he told me, but from his obituary.

At the end of the episode, I complained to my husband that the narrative had only mentioned Marines and Navy personnel, and I knew my dad, an Army infantryman, had been there. Mark, much read in the history of wars through the ages, said, "Remember the backup troops being flown in? That was your dad."

That's all I needed to hear.

The episode featured one small photograph of soldiers wading through mud-soaked jungles after a driving rainstorm. It so closely matched my childhood dream, it took my breath away (the clips were black and white, my dream, oddly enough, was in color). The accompanying narrative, wrenchingly descriptive, made me cry.

Daddy never talked about the war, not verbally, but there are others ways of telling stories. In this case, the stories were frightening and, ultimately, sad beyond belief.

On occasion, and more often than you might expect, my mother would wake up with bruises on her. She never complained because certainly my father, who was the kindest, gentlest man I've even known, wouldn't have done this intentionally. When asked, all mother would say is: "Your dad was dreaming about 'The War' last night." End of story.

My father used to frequently fall asleep in his recliner while watching television. Often, his body would stiffen and his arms (and sometimes his legs) would thrash out into the air, fists clenched. Sometimes he would cry out, but usually he would just utter a determined 'uh' or growling sound. This would last for probably only seconds (it seemed much longer), then, suddenly, stop, and he would awaken, or simply lay quietly napping again.

I never asked, but I assumed it was, again, 'The War'. Of course, this also left the bruises. Many of them painfully beyond the physical.

Father also sometimes went shirtless. As a farmer, this wasn't unusual and, even in Michigan, working in the fields in summer can get very hot. Never, however, did he do this around anyone but family.

On the upper right side of his back was a scar. From memory, at my best guess, it was about six inches across and probably eight or 10 inches long. There were other, smaller scars around it. For whatever reason, possibly from experiences mentioned earlier, I didn't ask dad about them. I asked mother, who said: "He was hit by a hand grenade in 'The War'." Again, end of story. At the time, this was heartbreaking enough, I didn't need to know more. Much later I discovered that one of his other scars had come from being shot. Before the incident with the hand grenade.
Years later, more than 20 years after his death, my mother found a copy of a diary he'd be given before he'd been shipped overseas. Sadly, not only was dad a man of few verbal words, he wrote very little, as well. There were maybe one dozen sentences or less in the entire diary. Only one, very short, sentence, stood out.

"I had malaria, but I'm better now."

Today I own one of his Purple Hearts. The ribbon is torn and, if touched, would probably as good as disintegrate. I keep it safe in its original box, but look at it from time to time to remind me of too many things to list. I also have his sharpshooter's medal and another 'pin' that I'm not sure about. From his obituary, I learned he earned three bronze stars.

Don't have any of those.

Dad was 28 when the war began and, prior to that had lived what must have been a relatively quiet life working in Bay City at Defoe's shipyard and helping my grandfather on the farm (which he later took over). The dichotomy of that life and life in 'The War' must have been horrifying to a man with only an eighth grade education.

From what I've heard, especially over the last decade, many, many veterans of 'The War' find it difficult to talk about. Thankfully, some of them can, and did, and we have the records, written or otherwise, to get the bigger picture. (History textbooks, by and large, are filled with jargonistic bullshit in which only names and dates are of any use).

Two of my uncles also served in 'The War', my maternal uncle in Europe and my father's brother, to my knowledge, never went overseas. Mother says my grandmother, during 'The War', once went to a movie and in one of the pre-feature newsreels, saw my uncle, whom she hadn't heard from in many months. You can imagine the confusing jumble of emotions: joy, sadness and melancholy, that must have ensued. Since dad's death, I've found myself watching the scant old footage of the war looking for his face (even in movies, which I know is silly, but I still do it, anyway). I can't tell you what my reaction would be if I did see him. Maybe I do it just to 'see him' again. I don't know.

Everyone who took part in 'The War' (the actual one, not the documentary) were, and are heroes. As one vet put it last night 'It wasn't a good war, it was a necessary war.'
But dad never thought himself a hero, or acted as though he should be treated as one.
But he was, and always shall be, my greatest hero.

My views on 'God' are skeptical at best. If the idea of a 'fair and just God' are true, then why has there been so much suffering--and by so many good, decent people? So many of them have suffered in silence.

That being said, if there is a God, I feel it's only fair to thank him/her for making sure my father survived 'The War' when so many thousands did not. After all, I had the best dad in the world.


  1. Suzanne,
    I tried to post a longer comment - but it wouldn't work for some reason! I love this post you put up. My father was in 'the war' as well. Thanks for sharing what you did!

  2. Thank you for taking the time to let me know you enjoyed it! :)