Docsplainin' -- it's what I do

Docsplainin'--it's what I do.
After all, I'm a doc, aren't I?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tommy Bryan on World War I

My Mom's Dad had three war stories.

In the first, he is marching toward the front when his squad passes through an olive grove. He claims that he'd always loved olives and so began picking them from trees near the road, carrying them in his helmet and eating them on the march. Which apparently made him quite sick.

In the second, he is in the trenches, watching the little aeroplanes go over, thinking that was the place to ride out the war--safe home at base every night. So he applied to be a pilot, but was not accepted. I am glad, in retrospect, because while I certainly would have wished him out of the trenches, the death rate for fighter pilots in those days was staggering.

He did manage to transfer into a supply/transportation battalion and would spend the rest of the war driving food and ammunition back and forth from the front. He might not be at home base safe every night, but he would be most nights. In this, his third war story, he is driving toward the front and is close enough that he can hear the guns. His truck slides into a ditch, sort of accidentally on purpose, and he spins the wheels "trying" to get out until he is well and truly stuck there. He is happily sitting cantilevered into the ditch, eating a sandwich, when along comes a French tanker who insists on pulling him out.

He would giggle at this point, that funny hee-hee laugh of his, and tell us that no sooner did the tanker pull him out than he promptly slid back into the ditch. Again, the Frenchman, cursing, hooks up the chains and pulls him back out. Again, my grandfather, making a big show of his incompetence, slides into the ditch. The Frenchman throws up his hands in Gallic disgust and rolls on. My grandfather ends the story by telling us that was as close to the front as he ever intended to get.

I do not think my grandfather was a coward: Quite the contrary. He never spoke of his experiences other than this. You just could not get him to. My grandmother, however, once said that he came back from the war with his health ruined, and that it was years before he got it back. You don't ruin your health sitting in a ditch eating a sandwich and giggling. So I always believed that he suffered, as infantry did in that war, horribly, and was lucky to return home alive. And that it was a combination of modesty and discomfort with painful topics that kept him to his three-funny-story repertoire.

As an adult, and later as a mental health professional, I found this pattern pretty common. Vets tend to talk to vets, and to demur with everybody else.

My father in law never said much about his
World War II Navy service, either, but I watched him light up when he met my cousin who'd also served. They spent the whole time during that family gathering comparing notes on their experiences. On another occasion, we took my father-in-law to a movie about the Pacific war. I don't remember which one. But again, I remember how he perched on the edge of his seat, eyes riveted to the screen, excitedly whispering to us, "That's where we were. . . yes, it was just like that!" and so forth during various invasions and sea battles throughout the movie. And then not one word in the car on the way home, nor did he ever mention it again.

Vets are pretty sure we won't get it. They may be right, but we have to be willing to try. We owe them that, and so much more.

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