Monday, May 31, 2010

boys and wars

In a rare burst of wisdom, I once proclaimed that there was no fight ever as fierce as the one waged in the defense of ignorance. That revelation summed up, as good as anything, my own teenage years as well, an inauspicious time concocted with backwater recipe of bland idealism, incorrigible (and incredible, under the circumstances) conceit, aimless rage and flat-out stupidity.

My complete and total lack of appreciation for all that had come before me at the time, and any debt of conscience, is laughable, or at least it would be, otherwise.

I have a clear recollection of Mr. Bricka, then principal, addressing the 1972 graduating class during what was to be our final high school assembly. Speaking from behind a tall podium of varnished plywood (likely as not built years earlier as a student wood shop project), he looked out over us and proclaimed that we would "..look back on these high school years as the happiest of our lives." His words rallied a tiny, polite applause, a handful of pre-drunken hoots from the back rows, and from me a silent, incredulous wince: "Best years?". For me, at least, they had been anything but.

For the middle-aged man on that stage, however, and an entire generation of men and women like him, I realize now those young years might very well have been the best years, and most carefree. Happy days to recall before the lot of them were to enlist or be drafted into the maelstrom that was World War ll.

Bricka himself was not only a veteran, but a veteran for whom the Battle of the Bulge was more than a page in history, since he'd lived it, meaning fought it. As an epic 40-day-long fight endured (and won) by hungry, freezing and under-equipped troops that ranged in age from seventeen to forty, brutal would appear to be an understatement. The topic introduction in Wikipedia notes it as the "... single largest and bloodiest battle that American forces fought in World War II", one which left 100,000 American troops either dead, wounded or captured. It was never a subject I discussed with Bricka himself (we were on less then friendly terms at the time, and he passed away in 1982), but if he was anything like many of the veterans I've talked to since, it's a fair to guess that it was a memory he both took immense pride in addition to being one he may have also wished to forget.

Our vice-principal was also a WW II vet, and our schoool counselor wore large brown hearing aids in both of his ears, the result of an exploding hand grenade, also in Europe. There were probably others as well, if I'd been paying attention, which I was not.

Fact was, growing up in the 50's and 60's, almost every adult male you encountered, including your own dad and for that matter your mother as well, had likely played some part in that war. Almost as likely, every family seemed also have at least one name that would come up from time to time, a brother or cousin or friend, someone they had seen off to The War but had never came back. In my wife's family it had her mom's brother. At our house it was Otto Hinds, Jr., my dad's youngest brother, whose plane had been shot down somewhere over Europe. While that war to me at the time seemed as far-off and irrelevant as the Civil War, I do have one recollection that served to nudge it a bit closer: visiting my grandparents in Kansas one summer in the late 60's, I slept in the basement bedroom, the coolest room in the house. Across the floor, near a wood shelf rack filled with canned fruits and vegetables, I noticed a large green chest, bolted shut. My father informed me later that when each one of their five sons had left for the war, their keepsakes had been tucked away in matching chests, for safekeeping, until their return. My grandparents had never had the heart to open it, and to the best of my knowledge never did. The silent message of that grief, oblivious to time, multiplied beyond my comprehension, gave me pause even then.

Of course as a stupid-ass kid, I was always unprepared when veterans didn't jump at the chance to reminisce. Raised on the Hollywood likes of Combat!, Twelve-OClock High and Rat Patrol, I was eager to hear a first-hand account of the action. That it never quite fit with the TV image was slow to sink in. Meeting my stepmother's brother, it was with the anticipation of having been told he was loaded with war stories. True. Souvenirs, too, including a genuine German pistol, pretty juicy stuff for a fifteen-year old. He followed that up with an adjacent story that surprised me at the time, but doesn't anymore: the gun would have been a Walther P-38 - a prized handgun issued chiefly to German officers - but as his platoon entered a small village he'd loaned it to a fellow GI, who ended up gunning down a German soldier with it. "I told him to keep it, or just throw it away...." he said, and then was quiet for a few seconds. "I didn't want a gun that had ever killed someone."

For a deluxe multi-page article on the 50-year anniversary of V-Day, I was once assigned to interview and photograph over a dozen WW II veterans, a diverse group of silver-haired men and women from all walks of life who had one thing in common: The War. All were a pleasure and a privilege to meet, but one veteran, sturdily built but in his 70's, stands out. A naturalized US citizen, he was a native Philippino who'd spent the bulk his wartime fighting as a jungle guerrilla - a member of of the legendary Philippine Scouts- following the Japanese invasion of the islands in 1942. By all accounts the Scouts were very tough hombres. All the more reason to take notice when, after fifty years, he broke down and wept when describing to me the day the Islands were finally liberated, and his fellow scouts and US troops paraded the American flag from village to village.

I would like to say that, even as a rebellious, pain-in-the-ass teenager, I held each and every veteran, and their sacrifice, all in high esteem, but that was not the case. And that is most assuredly both my loss, and my regret. It does not diminish what truly matters, or the matters of true greatness, the likes of which I had no clue, and likely really still don't, although the space that I reserve for such is now infinitely greater.

It's only at this point that I am able to appreciate what a privilege, although not a proud one, it was to be so young, and so stupid. I mean that sincerely, and I thank all of you, sincerely, and with my whole, imperfect heart.

It was perhaps, in the most generous sense, how youth might have been intended to be experienced.

Safe, and smiling, and stupid, and completely ignorant of the real world, except for what we dream, and imagine and hope that it will be.

1 comment:

  1. Miss you, Geff. I read these just to hear your voice again.