By Christopher Cudworth
Yesterday when I arrived at my father’s house to check on his caregiving needs, he pulled me over to his dining room table to show a drawing he’d just done. My father is a stroke victim going back more than a decade. He’s done pretty well given the partial paralysis of his right side, and not being able to talk. Despite these obstacles he’s taught himself to write and draw with his left hand, and that has helped with our communications over the years.
He showed me a picture that I knew immediately to be him. It bore the date September 1945 and had a drawing of a series of vehicles in a line. Each of these, it turned out, were forms of transportation he got while hitchhiking from the coast up to Yosemite while on leave from the Navy.
You could hitchhike back then and expect to get rides. Today’s hitchhikers seem to have disappeared from most urban and suburban areas. We don’t even see them on rural roads any more. One must suppose the creepy killer movie industry has killed hitchhiking.
But a sailor on leave in 1945 could go just about anywhere, you’d expect, because military was everywhere in those days. If I recall correctly my father arrived back on base a bit late and had to sneak around the MPs to get back safely to his barracks.
My father’s tour of duty included a stint sailing across the Pacific in a crappy boat with lots of leaks and a giant trough for a latrine. My father told me about the piss sloshing about and the occasional turd escaping the system to land on deck. The crew spent a lot of time cleaning up after their own ship. Once they made the trip to Japan for some sort of excursion the Navy scuttled the ship to the bottom of the ocean. It was no longer needed, so it was discarded.
Dad toured Nagasaki and Hiroshima. His black and white photos show cities flattened by the bombs that effectively ended war in the Pacific.
That’s about the extent of what I know about my father’s military service. His stroke silenced his recollections at the time in life when he might be interested in sharing them.
I like military stories, but not because I ever served. My age group fell into the gap between military conscription (the draft) and voluntary / required registration. So the military never touched me in any meaningful way.
A military lifestyle
Still, the training done for cross country and track was a difficult trek through discipline, suffering and sacrifice. I guess I did it for myself. I was never good enough as a runner to represent my country. Though I tried to be national class, the best I could do was compete in the Prairie State Games, an Illinois competition with an Olympics-like structure.
Some might say a good friend could have saved me all that trouble. Truly, by the time you’ve graduated from college running you should know just about how good you really are. Yet I did get better and learned quite a bit about myself from running as hard and long as I could.
That’s a bit different from being conscripted into service at the age of 18, subjected to 6 weeks of boot camp and shipped off carrying a rucksack to some – country where you shoot people. Of course you’re going to remember those experiences. Of course you are making a sacrifice for your country. Time is valuable.
Life is valuable. Which is why Memorial Day exists. It reminds us that people who either chose the military or were forced to sign up and gave their lives for the nation deserve to be recognized and remembered for that commitment to duty.
We can question politicians and question wars. We can question religion’s role in those wars, and whether we as a society go to war for legitimate or selfish reasons.
We can question how we treat our soldiers, both men and women, when they return home from war.
We can question all this and still be truly patriotic. Because our questions also force us to remember that not all war is just. Some wars are fought for reasons that the general public will never know. How those politicians sleep at night we will also never know. Because someone’s loved one is not here with them on Memorial Day. Children grow up without fathers or mothers because war is hell. And hell knows, or respects, no bounds.
What might have been, and what is
I don’t feel unpatriotic because I never served in the military. I might have made a great soldier. Lord knows I had enough anger within to make me want to kill people at some point in life. But working through that anger meant emerging as a different kind of warrior, one who respects life in a significant way, but not in some falsely patriotic bluster that says everything the military does is right.
The torture of people in Iraq. The whole messy ordeal going on now in Afghanistan. The massive blunders of Viet Nam. The lives destroyed by PTSD, by shrapnel and limbs torn off. All that mixes together when one thinks of Memorial Day, these days.
And that’s as it should be. I know that I run free because of the sacrifice of others. I know those wars despite their ugly flaws in purpose and passion probably needed to be fought. One could argue that nations cannot really exist without war. It defines resources and borders, ideology and hope. We are animals, so we fight. Even the Bible can’t change that, nor the claim that God favors one race or people over another.
Memorial Day is all about remembering the animal within us, and the struggle for survival, as a person, and as a people. Death is ignominious in so many ways. We consider it disgrace and yet utilize it for advancement of our national interests. That’s why Memorial Day is so necessary. Our survivor’s guilt needs some form of expression. We wave the flag and cook meat on a grill. Drink beer and turn on a car race or a basketball game. We go for a run or a ride and try to make sense of the reasons why we are alive. Then we remember, in some vague or painful way, that we’re here because someone else isn’t.