I keep very few photos on my desk.
Robocop and Avengers posters? You bet. Calvin and Hobbes strips? Absolutely. Green Lantern and T-Rex figurines? Collectors stamps of DC superheroes?
Check, check, and check.
A 6-year-old owns the joint. I’m just renting.
One of the photos on my desk shows that 6-year-old, wrapped in a tuxedo and standing next to his grandfather. They’re both at a wedding. The 6-year-old played ring bearer and the grandfather was the father of the groom – the 6-year-old’s uncle. They’re both smiling. It’s legitimate contentment.
That grandfather has been dead for six years. That 6-year-old had grown to 24 by that time. He tried not to cry at the funeral but ended up doing the opposite. His tears were more like screams. He “said a few words” in a packed church in Kalamazoo, Michigan and almost collapsed at the sudden wound of grief that opened in his chest.
Now that 6-year-old wears the disguise of a 30-year-old me everywhere he goes. Echoes of the man in the photo are still loud as ever; his voice, how he laughed, and so forth. They magnify and increase tenfold this time of year, when we approach a day designated to celebrating men and women like him.
The man in the photo fought in World War II in a U.S. Army division called the Graves Registration Service. His responsibilities included hauling the dead off battle fields, identifying them and writing to their families. War was about bodies for him, bodies and bad news. He was the messenger people talk about when they say “Don’t shoot the messenger.”
He saw the shores of Anzio during World War II, joining the Allied Forces on the push up through Italy to Rome. The sages at Google tell me 25,000+ died during that battle. That’s more than the population of Ashland.
The man in the photo buried whatever he witnessed. And I mean buried. He knocked his memories unconscious and threw them in a box, kicked it in a dark hole before shoveling dirt back over the chasm. He said little about what he’d seen during war, said nothing about the Bronze Star the U.S. government saw fit to give him.
The man in the photo on my desk preferred to move on, I think, a choice I respect and loathe in the same breath.
I’ve tried to fill in the blanks about his time overseas since then. I wrote a semi-biographical story called ‘Suffer the Echoes’ when he started going to the hospital a lot. A small literary journal out of West Virginia published it. I’m working on a similar piece right now. I have a trunk of his letters and other junk he kept from the war. Someday I’ll unearth them and write a book, a testament he would have likely poo-pooed but secretly felt flattered by if he were alive to see it.
I couldn’t tell you why I have this feeling of responsibility to keep his memory alive. The man in the photo is remembered already.
My best guess is I want to understand bravery. That concept – in its true form, at least – is largely foreign to me. I grew up in a two-story house in the suburbs. No one in my family is in jail or a padded room or has had to declare bankruptcy.
The man in the photo walked onto battlefields, gathered up bodies and buried them, told their families that their children were exceptional men. Concurrently, I get pissed when sources don’t call me back. I get an attitude when my wife asks me to clean the bathroom or I’m stuck on a video game.
The man in the photo is a reminder that I can be better than that. And on Veterans Day, his promptings get loud.