Thursday, November 22, 2018

War Stories, a post by @GiselleRenarde

Thirty years ago. November 11th. School assembly. Remembrance Day.

My school principal was a storyteller, and rarely without his guitar, but he didn't need it for the Remembrance Day assembly. Remembrance Day was a solemn occasion. In Flanders Fields always took pride of place, whether recited or sung.

At 11 AM, we had our moment of silence.

We were supposed to reflect on the war, but every year of my childhood, I remember standing in the school gymnasium attempting to manufacture emotion. I knew this was all supposed to mean something to me, but it didn't. To me, the war felt distant. Practically irrelevant.

It shouldn't have. Obviously. But, specifically, the war shouldn't have felt distant when I was standing in a room with teachers who were veterans. My Grade Four English teacher was an amputee due to war injuries. He was right there in the gym with us, and he was a truly lovely and supportive educator, but I never thought about him during our moment of silence.

I thought about my grandfathers, both of whom were veterans, both of whom had vastly different takes on their experiences overseas.

My paternal grandfather had one of those naked-lady tattoos that seem to have come back into fashion among hipsters. He got his during the war. It had the name and number of his battalion or regiment or platoon--I don't remember. I don't know the right words.

See, my paternal grandfather talked about the war all the time. War story after war story. And I tuned out every word. I thought it was all so boring, as a child. That stuff was all in the past. I just didn't care.

What I wouldn't give to go back in time and hear my grandfather's stories now. I'd be taking notes. I'd be writing it all down.

I've got tears in my eyes just writing this.

My maternal grandfather never talked about the war and, strangely, I can tell you much more about his wartime experiences. He was young when he enlisted, like so many soldiers. My grandma thought he looked just dreamy in his uniform.

He wanted to do some cooking overseas, and he did for a while, but because he was so scrawny, he was transferred to a tank battalion. This was not ideal. My grandfather was terrified of confined spaces. He was extremely claustrophobic, but what could he do? He had to go where he was told.

The only thing I specifically remember my grandfather telling me about the war was that he fought in Italy. His lungs were full of shrapnel until the day he died, and he had severe respiratory difficulties as a result, especially in his later years.

But the piece of information I found out most recently, from a family member in his 90s, is that, in Italy, my grandfather thought he'd died.

He found himself in a field somewhere, flat on his back, with his guts spread out beside him. Beyond his pile of guts, his best friend lay dead. My grandfather thought he must be dead too. Especially when the medical types came by, trying to assess who was dead, who was alive, who they could possibly save.

They took one look at my grandfather with his guts spilling out of him, and they kept on walking.

Proof positive, in my grandfather's mind, that he was as dead as his best buddy over there.

On their way back, those medics took a second look and determined all was not lost for my grandfather. It's a good thing they did, or I wouldn't be here to tell the tale.

Most of these war stories were told to me second-hand by other family members, since my maternal grandfather preferred not to talk about the war. He was clearly traumatized by his experiences, but he made a point of telling me that war is horrible. Horrible. It should never be glorified, because war is worse than any hell he could possibly imagine.

As a schoolchild, I didn't have the wherewithal to appreciate the sacrifices my grandfathers made. I still can't imagine the horrors they witnessed overseas. But you know what? Now that I'm a little older (and hopefully wiser), I think about my grandfathers every day. With all that's going on in the world, I can't help thinking they must be rolling in their graves.

I would be.


  1. You are younger than I am, yet we never spent any time (in the US) officially meditating on WWI. For me, especially growing up Jewish, World War II was the "real" war.

    Looking back I find this peculiar, since my grandfather served in Europe in the first war, nearly died, and came back a decorated hero. (So my grandmother felt obliged to marry him, even though that meant shelving her own ambitions.) We never talked about it, though. Perhaps it was just too horrible.

  2. My father-in-law was only 17 when he lied and joined the army during WWII. He told his kids that he had no need to revisit any of those memories, since they were so awful. Considering he was a pacifist, and a big marshmallow of a man, with a large heart and a love of children, I can only imagine how horrified he was at what he experienced, being in one of the troops that liberated at least one concentration camp.

    My uncles all fought in the big war. My dad was only 12 when it began in Scotland, and he had truly frightening stories about how awful it was to be getting bombed during the day, but especially in the middle of the night. Of the corpses he had to step over to get to school in the morning. Etc. He told us that war is stupid and pointless. It's only purpose is to kill people, and to make a very few rich selling arms. He said to honor the soldiers, like he told us to honor the working men and women who toiled their entire lives only to die of exhaustion...while others grew fat and happy on their labor. He truly hated aristocracy and rich folks. I've grown to agree with him.


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