The year my father spent in Vietnam, we moved to Danville, Illinois because Mom wanted to be closer to her family. My uncle, Bob Thompson, still lived in England in the 1960s, visiting the states once every few years. Uncle Bob left his small hometown in Illinois during WWII and ended up being a liaison officer between our military and the British forces. In the middle of all the bombing and deaths, all the struggles to survive, he fell in love—with the country. He rarely spoke of his role in the war but always recounted wonderful stories of the people he met. My other uncle, John Thompson, spun a tale for me when I asked about his scars. He said he parachuted behind enemy lines during the war, but the Germans shot him early in the battle. He told me how the soldiers checked for survivors, killing them if their wounds were too serious, or taking them as prisoners. He stated that he lost consciousness before the German’s came to him and that they left him for dead. He assured me our own soldiers rescued him when they regained the zone in battle. For all my life, I felt relief that my Uncle Red managed to survive for I loved him dearly. Who would have had the patience to teach me to whistle? Who would have treated me to A&W root beer floats? Who would have laughed at my silly jokes while I sat on his lap at family picnics?
A few years ago, I learned more of Uncle Red’s story. The part he kept hidden from a nine-year-old child. The German troops didn’t mistake him for dead. They picked him up and imprisoned him in a Nazi P.O.W. camp. I don’t know if he didn’t want to answer the inquisitive questions of a child, or if he simply preferred not to mention this part of his life. I know both of my uncles down played war and its repercussions. I believe they tried to make it less frightful for us as we waited for Dad’s return from his own war.
So when Memorial Day ceremonies play out on television, I think of the young man who carried scars into the night, and how he tried to protect me from my own fears as my father’s battle played across another ocean. Isn’t that the soldier’s way, to offer protection?
Each of us has an Uncle Red or Uncle Bob, or other family members sent to distant shores because of the power of duty. Luck followed our family because each of these men returned home. Many families will spend today honoring those who didn’t survive. And I wonder about all the little girls who never learned how to whistle because their Uncle Red died on a battle field.
Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman