We all know it happens. I have childhood memories of falling and bloodying myself. One of those times, I was riding my bicycle. My older brother was supposed to be watching me (oh, my), but instead, I hit a patch of sand, and he was somewhere else. I don’t recall the act of losing control, just the sensation of flying through the air…nor do I remember the impact…just walking across our front yard into the house.
My mother was in the “grownup” bathroom, with its black and white checkerboard tiles, her back to me.
“Are we having lettuce for supper tonight?” She didn’t turn around.
After that, it gets muddled. I think I asked again, or maybe just told her I’d fallen. Then she turned around, and found me standing there, blood streaming from my chin, down my front. I wonder if that’s why my, “Anything boys can do, girls can do better,” shirt disappeared. Hmm.
I don’t remember the ride to the hospital, only the ER doctor stitching my chin up, AFTER he had to cut it open further to make the area easier to suture. My mother had turned white and left the room. I watched the process in the reflection of the doctor’s aviator-style glasses, fascinated by the fact that he was sewing me up…yet I couldn’t feel it.
And yet, the trauma didn’t deter me from riding a bicycle again. Where does that line get drawn…between recovery and scarring…pathology….
Twenty years later, my mother was working in a credit union when an armed gunman walked in and robbed the place. Until then, everyone had operated with the secure (but strange) certainty that nobody would do such a thing. They were in a high crime area, but the fact was that gang members had their accounts at this institution. That normally kept the place safe…until that day.
She didn’t act like somebody who was dealing with PTSD after that, at least, not from the Hollywood-ized version we’ve long been fed. Popular culture would have us believe that something like PTSD is just being “weak”. I know plenty of people who would applaud during the scene of George C. Scott portaying Patton slapping a man for “battle fatigue”. But if it was your son, daughter, brother, or sister…would you feel differently?
The robbery only served to bring to a head what my mom had been dealing with for far too long, really – an abusive workplace – and within months, she had wrecked her car during rush hour. Several years removed, she feels that God intervened and helped her get out of that stage of life – having had experience in that realm before, I somehow feel that when you cannot face certain things, they have a way of sorting themselves out, in ways you could not have predicted.
It was only after all this trauma and trying to heal, that she finally started seeing the pattern in the past, from her childhood.
Her father was a veteran of the South Pacific – like many, if not most, he never talked about it. He joined up in January of 1942, before the draft had fully taken effect. Like so many others, he was a simple guy, with simple needs – a quiet farm boy with a wicked sense of humor. By his own admission, he tried to convince my grandmother to marry him before shipping out. I have read her reply (she’s another story altogether, mind you) – as she told him that she felt it would be unfair to both of them…not the best thing to buoy morale right before heading to a war zone…but I note that they each waited, and wed after he got home, in November of 1946.
His letters home dwelled exclusively on wanting to return to the life he’d left behind. He wanted nothing more than the news on the farm, and to have his own piece of it when the war was done. Meanwhile, as part of the 128th 32nd Red Arrow Division, he and his company slogged through the hellish landscape of the island campaigns. They fought through the eastern half of Papua New Guinea all the way to Buna. I knew it had to have been bad when I came across a quote from MacArthur (who had pushed the Buna campaign at all costs), which essentially expressed (I cannot locate it at the moment) that he would never again do as he had done in Buna.
“Buna was…bought at a substantial price in death, wounds, disease, despair,and human suffering. No one who fought there, however hard he tries, will ever forget it.” Fatalities, he concluded, “closely approach, percentage-wise, the heaviest losses in our Civil War battles.” He also commented, “I am a reasonably unimaginative man, but Buna is still to me, in retrospect, a nightmare. This long after, I can still remember every day and most of the nights.” General Robert L. Eichelberger
Read about the Buna-Gona campaign
From there, the 32nd pushed through Leyte, Luzon, further and further north toward MacArthur’s self-stated principal goal of retaking the Philippines, and liberating the men he’d been forced to leave behind. These were bloody; hard-fought and hard-won. Jungle warfare was learned on the run. Malaria, dengue, and typhus ravaged troops at every turn, while food stores rusted and rotted in the unfamiliar humidity, leading to dysentery.
By the time my grandfather had gotten home, undergoing treatment for a second, third…whatever bout with malaria…as far as I can figure, he was taking Atabrine – because he had turned yellow – he’d been in combat for approximately three solid years. His yellow coloration apparently prompted the good old civilian population to scurry to the other side of the street. Every summer, the heat would trigger another bout with malaria, and all those memories would send him into a silent prison. I can only imagine what must have been in his mind…the things he saw…things that gave him nightmares until dementia mercifully plucked those memories from him.
I’ll give you a hint – only just from the accounts of the push through to Buna. While American and other Allied losses were difficult – the Japanese side was far worse. MacArthur’s tactic was defeat aided by absolute elimination of supply. By the end, the Japanese troops were using their dead as bunker reinforcements, and (according to sources of the day – this is obviously a touchy thing to most of us) practicing cannibalism.
All war is terrible. It exacts unimaginable tolls on those we send into its grinding jaws. And we so little understand the human brain – anything we do is a “best guess” practice, no matter how much success it’s had.
By now, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with anything. Pretty soon, I hope it will be obvious, as I get ready to put my next book out there. This thing has evolved a lot over the last 17 years – yeah, that long – in light of the drawdown, sending veterans back home to “normalize” – and what happened a little over a month ago, about 50 minutes away from us, in Newtown – I can only hope that the message will be: You are not forgotten. You will not be left behind.