The power of one
Two generations of my family are best defined by the things they almost never discussed with me. For my grandparents, it was the desperate poverty of the Great Depression, followed by the heartbreak that was World War II. For my father and mother, the event that shaped the years of their early adult lives was the Vietnam War.
I am a member of the first generation of my family who, upon looking back, cannot claim to understand what they went through. My generation has nothing of the kind—and this, as my mother once said quietly to me, is probably the greatest blessing we will never comprehend.When I was ten, I was given a school assignment: to interview an older member of my family to learn what their life was like when they were my age. I picked my maternal grandfather's eldest sister, Belva Davis.
My memories of the interview are sharp and distinct, even though the tape is lost. My mother, sitting in the room with me. Me, sitting on the floor with a tape recorder cradled in my lap, sitting at Belva's feet* (which I found extraordinarily fascinating) and asking her questions.
One of my questions had unintended results. I asked her what she enjoyed doing when she was my age, and her slow and measured response stung me for the rebuke it was. "Don't you know, child? We had nothing. No money, nothing. Fun was for when you had enough food to feed everyone in your family and still have money left over at the end of the month."
She was kind about her response, although as a rebuke for an unlearned child, it had exactly the effect she intended. I do not remember the report that I wrote, detailing her responses, but I do know that I ended up reading extensively about the Great Depression and WWII. Before interviewing Belva, my understanding of the effects of devastating poverty and war existed only on a national level.
Afterwards, I began to attempt to understand it in the context of people I knew and loved. It wasn't just 'people' that lived through the years when the soil dried up and blew away. They were my grandfather and his siblings, people whose dinners I ate and whose back yards I played in. The eyes that watched me were the same ones that had watched those things—heretofore only mentioned in 'history' books—happen.
It was not until I was in my late teens that I learned that my maternal grandmother, Ruth, who had married Lloyd B., also had a brother named Lloyd, who died in Korea.
This point marked the beginnings of my anger at how history is taught in American high schools. We, as students, were given numbers to memorize: how many tons of aluminum were produced to create planes, ships and bombs; the number of men and women who were sent off to war; the number who died in battles and skirmishes and random accidents related to the war. American high schools forgo the immediacy of learning about your own family's history in exchange for the memorization of sterile numbers that mean nothing—and, as a result, we learn nothing.
None of those numbers I memorized contained for me the power of one: the power of a twenty-something boy who must have had an Arkansas accent none too dissimilar to mine. Who didn't want to go to war but enlisted anyway. A boy whom my grandmother, the eldest sibling, dearly loved (in the way that only an eldest child can love a youngest child) and whose death so greatly affected my grandmother that she never spoke of it to her grandchildren.
To this day it mystifies me that American secondary education does not encourage its students to go to the elder members of their families for firsthand knowledge of how events from the 1930s and 1940s affected their families. We are probably the last generation of 'youngsters' who will sit at a table with grandparents or great-grandparents who truly know the difference between 'families making preparations for war' and 'watching my mother sew blackout curtains' or, more dishearteningly, 'My brother/husband/father/son never came back from the war at all.'
A year ago I learned this lesson anew. Another generation, a painfully similar story: my mother, born four days before the end of 1943. Quick, add twenty years to that number: yes, 1963, and welcome to the Vietnam War.
Yet another example of stupidity in American high schools: in every class, we started American history with the colonization of this continent, but it always seemed that we ran out of days in the semester before even covering WWI—much less WWII—adequately.
Not once did we ever cover the Vietnam War. Not once.
Last year, when I told my mother that I was planning to visit the Vietnam Memorial while I was in D.C., I told her that if she wanted any rubbings from the Wall, I would get them for her. Her silence was deafening, until she answered me obliquely:
"I have been meaning to go to the Memorial for many years now, but I truthfully don't think I can ever go. I know too many names on that wall." I waited. "Over half of the boys in my high school graduating class are on that Wall. I don't think I could ever face all those names."
So I went—with Andy—and thought I had prepared myself for the enormity of that black monolith, thickly etched with names. Like most people, I found myself overwhelmed when faced, in person, with the enormous number of names. I walked by the Wall, and reached out with my right hand to touch names. Random names. Names I didn't know and couldn't bring myself to remember afterward.
My mother had a graduating class of around 30-40 people. If we assume it was half male and half female, then we come to the assumption that she lost around ten classmates to the war. In such a small school, you grew up knowing the people in the classes directly before and after yours just as well as you did your own.
I have to think there were similar casualty counts in the classes of 1960 and 1962.
So I walked away from the black monolith, asking myself how confused and angry I would be if somewhere between ten and thirty of the people I grew up with were gone, for some painfully senseless war they didn't even want to fight.
Even then, I didn't understand.
After coming home and having time to digest it all, I recalled a conversation my mother and I had had, a few years prior, about Tommy Lackey.
Before dropping out of college for financial reasons, my father had two close friends—Ernest and Tommy. The three of them recognized which way the winds were blowing, back in the 60s, and debated what they should do. Then my mother told me of the decisions they made, and how it affected all of their lives.
Understand that I only know Tommy, Ernest, and my father as the middle-aged men they became. I was born when my father was almost 34, and by the time I became cognizant of these events, these were middle-aged men dreaming of retirement, grandchildren, and quiet fishing trips.
They waited, and they talked about it, and Ernest and my father opted to enlist in the National Guard in the hopes of not seeing combat. (Which they did not.) Tommy waited too long to enlist in the Guard, and was drafted. Instead of spending those years down in Texas with the Guard, Uncle Sam sent him, and thousands like him, to Vietnam as part of the U.S. Army.
This was Tommy, the quiet and larger half of the married couple I'd known since childhood as "Tommy-and-Vivian." As in, "Tommy-and-Vivian and Judy-and-Ernest" are coming over tonight—as if Tommy-and-Vivian were one unit, one person.
We were attending a funeral, my mother and father and sister and I—a funeral of someone my parents and sister had known, but I had not. Afterwards, my mother attempted to explain who this person was.
"He was in the Guard with your father and Ernest," she said. I asked about Tommy, whom I thought had been in the Guard with them, and my mother shook her head no, and explained the story I outlined here. "You have to understand. Tommy got sent to Vietnam. He never talks about it. We don't know what happened when he was over there."
It was then, at that point, I looked at Tommy and asked myself what the weight of history and pain and war could do to the psyche of one man. What events could transpire that could make a twentysomething boy into a kind and genial middle-aged man who, despite a kindly face and a gentle demeanor, could never bring himself to talk about what he had seen and experienced.
I attempted to picture his hands—twentysomething, thinner, younger—holding a bayonet, as the half-century version—thicker through age, extra weight, and arthritis—held his wife's in his own as he grieved for someone he loved.
My inability to picture the change made it real to me. Those hands. That man. That woman, next to him, had waited for letters home from her spouse.
Unable to understand.
Grateful she can't.
Regretful she will never find out the full stories of these lives.
Amazed to learn that the fiftysomething purveyors of the everyday were once teenagers and twentysomethings, like her, who hadn't quite 'learned better' yet.
Still capable of being awed by the power of one.
* Sorry, I know that sounds strange. Anyone who has seen me in person knows that I have very small feet and small toes—I do, after all, wear a size 6½ shoe. What you don't know is that the second and third toes on my left foot have overlapped since I was born. What stayed with me after the interview was the shock I had, looking at her feet—much older and more tired-looking than mine—and realizing that the second and third toes on her left foot were overlapped, as well. It was the kind of small, yet piercing, connection that made everything she said much more real to me. It was my first taste of realization that two people, over sixty years apart in age, might have more in common than the young one realized.