War Stories: They Shall Not Grow Old

What is the message of the documentary They Shall Not Grow Old? There is no plot, no storyline, no main character, no moral to the story. Instead, filmmaker Peter Jackson, of Lord of the Rings fame, champions the importance of storytelling. Real-life storytelling.

They Shall Not Grow Old is not your usual documentary explaining the history of something or someone with some quotes and commentary added in. It goes beyond a Ken Burns documentary that has a lot of quotes and commentary along with history. Peter Jackson chose to make this film all about personal experiences. Human nature dooms us to fight repeated wars, and violent shows make for popular entertainment, but let’s understand the reality of what goes on at the front lines—and afterwards for those who survive.

Kudos to the BBC for conducting interviews with WWI veterans—the last one died in 2012. Only their families are left to repeat the stories, if they even know them. At the end of the film is a long list of the elder British veterans whose interview clips basically narrate the documentary. They told intimate details about their training, what they wore, what they ate, what the trenches were like, how they went to the “bathroom,” what being surrounded by death was like, how they reacted to the end of the war, and what happened when they went home. What they thought and felt.

The film clips are amazing, not just for what they show but for how they have been restored to better than they ever were. The men have become real! It is worth staying after the credits to hear Peter Jackson explain the challenges in making the film and show some before and after clips. At the very end he asks us to ask the questions. That is our responsibility to save lived history by asking the questions. Pass it on. Maybe write it down for safekeeping, or make a recording. Thank goodness for all the life writers and oral historians out there.

Related post: Memorial Day – All Quiet on the Western Front

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Ornament Memories of Christmas Past

I put up a small artificial tree this year. The kids are grown and I’m busy. The thought of putting up a big live tree of dripping needles was too much, but the short old fake tree is a little embarrassing, at least until dark when the colored lights bring on the magic. I did put out the usual decorations on the fireplace mantel. The fireplace we never use because it burns wood, which aggravates my allergies. But, my homemade stockings look nice hanging there.

It’s really a shame when I put up the little tree because I have a big collection of ornaments—ornaments I can’t bear to get rid of because they hold meanings. Some of my favorites are from when we lived in England – cloth dolls of King Henry and some of his wives, a red-coated Queen’s guard, Alice in Wonderland. I fell in total love with England—and Wales—and could never part with those ornaments. Then there are theIMAG0056.1 ones from my family that were given to me during the early years of my marriage. I have the dates written on some of them. I love having those dates! There’s a hand-decorated, wine-colored glass ball from 1984, with little silk roses glued on top, crafted by my stepmom. A jointed cloth bear and a horse were sewn by my sister. Also, I still have some ornaments the kids made in kindergarten.

This year I opened a box I had not looked at for years (because I have so many ornaments) and found an angel from my childhood days. Not much survived from then, but here was that angel I had forgotten about. And some fiberglass birds that clip onto the tree branches. I have the four “Heavenly Noel Angels” made in Japan in the 1950s. These are my treasures, reminding me of childhood excitement and the days when we drove to my grandmother’s house in Chicago, me thrilled by all the lighted decorations attached to streetlights. They are all vintage now—like me.

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I also love my floppy Rodney and Rhonda Reindeer from the mid-1980s. Their children are Randy and Ramona, and there’s a mini baby version. These Hallmark toys apparently were sold by Burger King, with the mini baby in kids’ meals, although I swear I got them from McDonald’s because I normally would not go to BK. Memories can be deceiving. These toys take me back to living in northern Alabama. I had the beany baby craze pre-children, and a decade before those other beany babies came out.

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I have not read Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which was so popular a while back, but I know it’s about keeping only the things that speak to you. Well, my house is noisy. Noisy with memories.

Merry Christmas – hope you have great memories hanging on your tree!

 

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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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