War Stories and Veterans Day

There seems to be no end to the fascinating details of war experience that you’ve never heard of before. The Battlefield Doc and I started the day at a local VFW Post’s annual Veteran’s Day breakfast where Doc had a book signing. He loves talking to people, telling stories and hearing theirs. I keep telling people they need to write these stories for their families to hold on to, to honor what their veteran has been through and to save these pieces of history – some of them astonishing.

Then we went to the newly-renovated Soldiers Memorial Military Museum in St. Louis and arrived just in time to see a commemorative service on the granite front steps, honoring veterans and explaining the Missing Man table setting there – always moving. In the chill breeze, Doc did well, even under the deafening 3-volley salute, which made me jump at each sharp crack. Then a woman from the French Society eloquently spoke to thank Americans for their sacrifice in coming to the aid of France, far away and “for strangers, for people whose language they could not understand.”

Our museum carries some fascinating history from war times. Likewise, our veterans carry fascinating history from their times. Their families have fascinating histories, too—how did their lives change while their husbands, fathers, wives, or mothers were away? History books hold the macro details, but only personal histories share the small details of daily lives and concerns – the stuff most of us can relate to, and the stuff we’d be most curious about if we only stopped to think about it.

Not everyone will naturally tell their stories. Your veteran may think you don’t care to know, or that you can’t possibly understand so why talk about it. If you show interest, you never know what might happen—you might unleash a torrent. You might help someone feel good about themselves, to remember a great friendship or fascinating experience, or perhaps release their pain. With combat veterans, take whatever stories will come and don’t push as you would not want to traumatize them.

Many combat veterans have stories of fun times and camaraderie, and they can talk around the horrors they experienced, to instead speak on “safe” topics like boot camp and training, food, living on a ship or submarine, being in a tank, down times and R&R, USO shows, the countries they were in and the civilian people they met, being with soldiers from another country. Despite being in combat the entire time he was in Korea, Doc has interesting “safe” stories about the Korean people and countryside, the weather, the Turkish unit next to his, his duties during lulls in fighting, the one USO show he could go to, their intepreters’ skills, and how tough the “commandos” were.

Get the stories in whatever form you can – before it’s too late! Saying “thank you for your service” is nice, but you can really show you care and have respect for their service by asking questions.

See “Questions for Military Veterans

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Dia de los Muertos, 2 Deaths, and Life Writing

I watched the animated movie Coco last night (my first time) as fitting for Dia de los Muertos as well as All Saints Day. I love the Day of the Dead celebration welcoming spirits of ancestors to come back for a visit, showing them how much we still remember and miss them. This is similar to the Japanese Obon celebration in summer. The Pixar movie shows a colorful fantasy world of the dead, who live on in not-scary skeleton form – until they are no longer remembered by anyone living and turn to dust.

Yes, there is a second death, when no one living remembers you anymore. Then you are truly dead. The Coco movie is a message to the living that I take to heart. I encourage life writing to capture in print the stories of ourselves and our ancestors, so we and they have a chance to “live” forever, or at least until the last book copy of us is lost.

Another reason to write the stories of ourselves and our ancestors is that they contain the history and culture of the time. Every life that passes unwritten is a historical and sociological reference book missing from our family library. Both Cherry Blossoms in Twilight and Battlefield Doc are even in public and university libraries. Most of us have stories of what life was like for “everyday” people. History books do not capture these kinds of stories, so they are lost if we don’t write them.

What can you do about this? Start writing whatever you know! November is National Life Writing Month. It is also NaNoWriMo. Many writers are participating in National Novel Writing Month, but you don’t need to work on a novel; you can challenge yourself to start on your family history or a memoir. Don’t worry about perfection, just write. Type up what you know. You can gather more stories, put it all together, and edit later. Here are some words of encouragement:

“Every person passing through this life will unknowingly leave something and take something away. Most of this ‘something’ cannot be seen or heard or numbered or scientifically detected or counted. It’s what we leave in the minds of other people and what they leave in ours. Memory.
—Robert Fulghum, author of Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

A life well lived is a precious gift
Of hope and strength and grace,
From someone who has made our world
A brighter, better place.
It’s filled with moments, sweet and sad
With smiles and sometimes tears,
With friendships formed and good times shared
And laughter through the years.
A life well lived is a legacy
Of joy and pride and pleasure,
A living, lasting memory
Our grateful hearts will treasure.
—Author unknown

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Marigold petals are featured in the movie Coco, guiding the spirits to the family altars

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Memoir is lived history

My mother’s birthday has passed, and I can’t believe she has been gone for six years now. The anniversary of her death comes in November, so each year as my favorite season arrives I am struck all over again with fresh memories of her last days, and the thought of her life so filled with history. The Japanese civilian experience surviving WWII is still so rarely spoken of or written about. And the Japan of her childhood no longer exists.

When my mother died, I lost my anchor to Japan, and I think of this fascinating genetic and cultural link fading away with my daughters. Their children will be all American, and no hint of Japan will be left but perhaps a few inherited curiosities. Thank goodness for the stories. As the leaves become beautiful in death, I think of Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, and I am so glad that even through death, my mother’s stories survive. She will be remembered. History has been captured.

Our elder generation is leaving us, taking their stories with them. How did people live in those days? Times were so different then. Don’t let your family stories die. They are your inheritance, and history worth saving.

Yaeko+Junko 1952

My mother at left, with friend Junko, when they worked for American families during the Occupation

 

Cherry Blossoms Twilight

Posted in capturing memories, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, heritage, history, war stories, WWII | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments