Flashfiction: “He Had A Hard War”

In general, the flashfiction pieces I post on this blog are conceived and written based on something that struck me at that particular moment in time.  Whether that “call” to write comes from an image or a song or a written line, my flashfiction is generally a pretty immediate response.

The piece below is a bit different.  It is different because the line that gave me the “call” to write is one I read many years ago.  That line has stuck in the back of my mind because the pathos it evokes comes entirely from events that are “offscreen.”  The feelings it brings are those of memory, of things hidden and things forgotten.  It touches, also, on that feeling of uncertainty you get when you realize just how little you truly know about those around you.

As ever, I gave myself one hour to conceive, write and post the piece. I also gave myself a “limit” of 400 words, and managed to squeak in just under that with 397:

He Had A Hard War”

My uncle never talked much about the war.  His only stories had been about basic training, and the trouble he and his friends would get into.  Just how a man so given to practical jokes and petty rebellions could actually have gone on to serve, I never quite understood.

We weren’t close, my uncle and I.  But with no children of his own, and my pwn parents gone, I was all the family he had left.  It fell to me, then, to handle his affairs.

The accounts and minutiae of life had been the easiest, to be honest.  A few calls and forms and the changes were made.  The care home had been harder, a mess of bureaucracy and dead-ends until a helpful worker had cut through the bullshit and pushed the right buttons.

When I asked how, and why, she had gone to such lengths, her answer had been simple and heartfelt, “Semper fi.”

The hardest of all had been the storage unit.  Only after the housing and money and legal affairs had been handled did I work up the energy to deal with the all-but forgotten remnants of his life.  Most of it was sold or donated, until only a few boxes remained.

A photo album, then, buried behind the mementos of my uncle and father as kids.  The first picture was of my uncle in a dark blue uniform, starched and pressed and trying to look as impressive as he could.  Gone was the paunch and the tired face, and in their place…a man impossibly young, bursting with energy.  There were more pictures, of course.  Pictures of him with others, all as young and vibrant and alive as was he in those pictures.

The pictures stopped, however, about halfway through that album.  Page after page, all empty of pictures.  Why?  My uncle had lived a good life before age had caught up with him.  Where were the memories of that part of his life?  I had found other photos, from more recent days, but none of those albums had been as worn and well-thumbed as the one in my hand.

I paged back, then, to study the final photo.  A small armored vehicle in the foreground, about ten yards away — presumably his — and in the background…

In the background an eruption of black smoke, pouring from vehicles twisted and wrecked.

{Note 1 — A real world example of the line I talked about above: I met a man, once, in my old coffee shop.  He was an old man, stooped and slow.  We had never really interacted beyond the normal smiles and morning greetings of those who regularly haunt the same place.  Our acquaintance would never have gone beyond that, except that I happen to be a history nerd.  The man’s car had a license plate that struck me one morning, when I saw him climb out.  That plate bore not a random collection of numbers and letters, but a US Navy hull number.

It was a hull number that I knew*, by the way.  The number of a ship involved in one of the biggest battles in US Navy history.  A ship that, along with her partners in a little escort group, sacrificed herself to shield the big, lumbering, vulnerable assets she had been assigned to protect.  I finally worked up the courage to sit and talk with this quiet, little man…to ask him, with all the fear and hesitation in the world, about his ship.  And he told me.  He told me about the ship, and about his friends.  Over the course of the anecdotes and funny stories, he told me also about that fateful day…

*I knew the ship because I have a picture of her above my desk.  Take a moment, if you will, and click the link to check out DD-533, USS Hoel.}

{Note 2 — Oh, the line in question, the one that spawned this post?  It’s the freaking title.  Believe it or not, that line comes from “Goblet of Fire,” the fourth book in the Harry Potter series.  Now, that book is to my mind the best of the series because it marks the first time you have real depth of emotion and loss in those books.  It is when the series moves beyond the pointless silliness of kids’ books and starts to introduce “grown-up” elements that resonate in ways beyond the grinning nostalgia of “Sorceror’s Stone.”  Although the line itself is something of a “throwaway” from the book’s prologue, I have always found it a fantastically effective bit of characterization crammed into just five words.}

Memorial Day is More Than Pandemics and Politics

Tomorrow is Memorial Day.  It doesn’t feel like it, not in this terrible year, but nor does it feel like the normal facade of cook-outs and three-day weekends and other mundanity.

Even now, even today…

6CF962AA-3326-4234-A532-EE72B142A6C5Strike that.  Especially now, especially today, we have to take the time to remember just what this day means.  Just why it is more than tiny little flags someone else stuck on a grave in between hot dogs and runs to the store for more beer.  Unfortunately, I have this fear — more of a certainty, to be honest — that this Memorial Day, and all that it means, will be lost under the cloud of COVID-19, political hatred, and the brewing unrest and discord that hangs over it all.

IMG_0720So I sat down to write a post about Memorial Day.  I sat down to use my own words and knowledge to put a drink on the bar (you can read about the origins of my use of that phrase here) for those we have lost, then I realized I was just repeating myself.  Instead of doing that, I am going to break one of my semi-rules and repost here something I wrote a couple of years ago.  I’m going to repost it because it still works…and it stills carries all the meaning in the world.

I Have No Words

I’ve never heard the drums of war.

I’ve never lived the reality of combat.

As a writer, and as a student of history, I try to learn and to understand, but that understanding is merely intellectual. I know the truth as it has been told to me, but I have no true understanding of the reality.

For this Memorial Day post, I am not going to use my own words. My own words are as inadequate as they are disconnected from that reality. No, instead I am going to use the actions and words of those who know.

From Lieutenant Bob Kerrey, USN — Medal of Honor, Bronze Star, Purple Heart:

“Too often, Memorial Day becomes just another three-day weekend, a holiday that marks the beginning of summer, the opening of public pools, the excitement of children who know that the school year is about to end.
The holiday doesn’t have to be this way. It can be more. And it can be more with just a little bit of an effort. You don’t have to give much to get a lot.

If you have not suffered a loss, think of someone who has. Consider what they gave. Consider what they are giving now.

In my case, I will take a few minutes to quietly remember the men I knew who died before this day had a meaning for them. They were too young, too free of terrible memories, too unburdened of wondering if they were good men.”

—Quoted from “How I remember my lost military comrades” in today’s New York Daily News. Read the whole thing.

I wasn’t sure how to approach today’s post, until Lt. Kerrey gave me the idea. Below are the formal citations for several Medal of Honor winners, one from each service…every one of them posthumous.

9E6A169B-35E3-4F55-AEAA-185BC0FD1E30Commander Ernest Evans, USN — Medal of Honor, Bronze Star, Purple Heart
— Killed in action October 25, 1944 in the Philippine Sea

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Johnston in action against major units of the enemy Japanese fleet during the battle off Samar on 25 October 1944. The first to lay a smokescreen and to open fire as an enemy task force, vastly superior in number, firepower and armor, rapidly approached. Comdr. Evans gallantly diverted the powerful blasts of hostile guns from the lightly armed and armored carriers under his protection, launching the first torpedo attack when the Johnston came under straddling Japanese shellfire. Undaunted by damage sustained under the terrific volume of fire, he unhesitatingly joined others of his group to provide fire support during subsequent torpedo attacks against the Japanese and, outshooting and outmaneuvering the enemy as he consistently interposed his vessel between the hostile fleet units and our carriers despite the crippling loss of engine power and communications with steering aft, shifted command to the fantail, shouted steering orders through an open hatch to men turning the rudder by hand and battled furiously until the Johnston, burning and shuddering from a mortal blow, lay dead in the water after 3 hours of fierce combat. Seriously wounded early in the engagement, Comdr. Evans, by his indomitable courage and brilliant professional skill, aided materially in turning back the enemy during a critical phase of the action. His valiant fighting spirit throughout this historic battle will venture as an inspiration to all who served with him.”

02E7682F-7CE5-4185-A483-4B74F35F1CE9Corporal Jason Dunham, USMC — Medal of Honor, Purple Heart
—Killed in action April 4, 2004 in Husaybah, Iraq

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a Rifle Squad Leader, 4th Platoon, Company K, Third Battalion, Seventh Marines (Reinforced), Regimental Combat Team 7, First Marine Division (Reinforced), on 14 April 2004. Corporal Dunham’s squad was conducting a reconnaissance mission in the town of Karabilah, Iraq, when they heard rocket-propelled grenade and small arms fire erupt approximately two kilometers to the west. Corporal Dunham led his Combined Anti-Armor Team towards the engagement to provide fire support to their Battalion Commander’s convoy, which had been ambushed as it was traveling to Camp Husaybah. As Corporal Dunham and his Marines advanced, they quickly began to receive enemy fire. Corporal Dunham ordered his squad to dismount their vehicles and led one of his fire teams on foot several blocks south of the ambushed convoy. Discovering seven Iraqi vehicles in a column attempting to depart, Corporal Dunham and his team stopped the vehicles to search them for weapons. As they approached the vehicles, an insurgent leaped out and attacked Corporal Dunham. Corporal Dunham wrestled the insurgent to the ground and in the ensuing struggle saw the insurgent release a grenade. Corporal Dunham immediately alerted his fellow Marines to the threat. Aware of the imminent danger and without hesitation, Corporal Dunham covered the grenade with his helmet and body, bearing the brunt of the explosion and shielding his Marines from the blast. In an ultimate and selfless act of bravery in which he was mortally wounded, he saved the lives of at least two fellow Marines. By his undaunted courage, intrepid fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty, Corporal Dunham gallantly gave his life for his country, thereby reflecting great credit upon himself and upholding the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”

32EEA3A4-2B54-4B49-BA84-94A9A2B68421Private First Class Anthony Kaho’ohanohano — Medal of Honor, Purple Heart
—Killed in action September 1, 1951 near Chup’a-ri, South Korea

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty Private First Class Anthony T. Kaho’ohanohano, Company H, 17th Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy in the vicinity of Chupa-ri, Korea, on 1 September 1951. On that date, Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano was in charge of a machine-gun squad supporting the defensive positioning of Company F when a numerically superior enemy force launched a fierce attack. Because of the enemy’s overwhelming numbers, friendly troops were forced to execute a limited withdrawal. As the men fell back, Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano ordered his squad to take up more defensible positions and provide covering fire for the withdrawing friendly force. Although having been wounded in the shoulder during the initial enemy assault, Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano gathered a supply of grenades and ammunition and returned to his original position to face the enemy alone. As the hostile troops concentrated their strength against his emplacement in an effort to overrun it, Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano fought fiercely and courageously, delivering deadly accurate fire into the ranks of the onrushing enemy. When his ammunition was depleted, he engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat until he was killed. Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano’s heroic stand so inspired his comrades that they launched a counterattack that completely repulsed the enemy. Upon reaching Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano’s emplacement, friendly troops discovered 11 enemy soldiers lying dead in front of the emplacement and two inside it, killed in hand-to-hand combat. Private First Class Kaho’ohanohano’s extraordinary heroism and selfless devotion to duty are in keeping with the finest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the 7th Infantry Division, and the United States Army.”

48954FA8-0C46-452C-9FB6-C552CE83FFEECaptain Steven Bennett, USAF — Medal of Honor, Purple Heart
—Killed in action June 29, 1972 in the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam

“Capt. Bennett was the pilot of a light aircraft flying an artillery adjustment mission along a heavily defended segment of route structure. A large concentration of enemy troops were massing for an attack on a friendly unit. Capt. Bennett requested tactical air support but was advised that none was available. He also requested artillery support, but this too was denied due to the close proximity of friendly troops to the target. Capt. Bennett was determined to aid the endangered unit and elected to strafe the hostile positions. After four such passes, the enemy forces began to retreat. Capt. Bennett continued the attack, but, as he completed his fifth strafing pass, his aircraft was struck by a surface-to-air missile which severely damaged the left engine and the left main landing gear. As fire spread in the left engine, Capt. Bennett realized that recovery at a friendly airfield was impossible. He instructed his observer to prepare for ejection, but was informed by the observer that his parachute had been shredded by the force of the impacting missile. Although Capt. Bennett had a good parachute, he knew that if he ejected, the observer would have no chance of survival. With complete disregard for his own life, Capt. Bennett elected to ditch the aircraft into the Gulf of Tonkin, even though he realized that a pilot of this type aircraft had never survived a ditching. The ensuing impact upon the water caused the aircraft to cartwheel and severely damage the front cockpit, making escape for Capt. Bennett impossible. The observer successfully made his way out of the aircraft and was rescued. Capt. Bennett’s unparalleled concern for his companion, extraordinary heroism, and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty, at the cost of his life, were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force.”

A10772B0-7E3C-45E9-AA55-14010FBA02F4Signalman First Class Douglas Munro, USCG — Medal of Honor, Purple Heart
— Killed in action September 27, 1942 near Point Cruz, Guadalcanal

“For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action above and beyond the call of duty as petty officer in charge of a group of 24 Higgins boats, engaged in the evacuation of a battalion of marines trapped by enemy Japanese forces at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal on 27 September 1942. After making preliminary plans for the evacuation of nearly 500 beleaguered marines, Munro, under constant strafing by enemy machine guns on the island, and at great risk of his life, daringly led five of his small craft toward the shore. As he closed the beach, he signaled the others to land, and then in order to draw the enemy’s fire and protect the heavily loaded boats, he valiantly placed his craft with its two small guns as a shield between the beachhead and the Japanese. When the perilous task of evacuation was nearly completed, Munro was instantly killed by enemy fire, but his crew, two of whom were wounded, carried on until the last boat had loaded and cleared the beach. By his outstanding leadership, expert planning, and dauntless devotion to duty, he and his courageous comrades undoubtedly saved the lives of many who otherwise would have perished. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”

The Eyes Tell The Real Story

I was writing a microfiction piece to post later this week.  Nothing new in that, although I haven’t been as good at keeping up with the whole “Microfiction Friday” thing as I should be.  At any rate, I had finished writing the piece and I was looking for a photo to go with it.

Hoo boy, did that search send me down a rabbit-hole.  I wanted a very particular picture — a particular timeframe, a particular composition, a particular subject…

But I framed my initial search too broadly.  I framed it too broadly, and I ran into a whole lot of “other” pictures.  Oh, not the BAD kind of “other”, but rather the good kind…the kind that gets us writers to thinking.  To imagining and projecting.  To writing.  Pictures that, like the old saying goes, say a thousand words.  Pictures that say more than that.

Private-Edwin-Francis-Jemison.jpgOne of those pictures truly stuck with me.  It still sticks with me.  It sticks with me because it tells an entire freaking novel

It’s not a comfortable picture, not when you look at it for a while.  And it gets worse when you learn his story…and his fate.

Private Edwin Francis Jemison, 1844 – 1862.

Look, child soldiers are bad enough, but look at that picture…really look at it.

You know what gets me?  It’s the eyes.  Those are the eye of someone who has seen death, of someone who has fought and feared and suffered.  They are certainly not the eyes of a boy, of one we should be able to call an innocent.

Shit, I write about 16-17 year old kids.  I write about them as addicts and thieves and prostitutes.  I write about them, when you get right down to it, as who they truly are: the inhabitants — the victims, really — of the society we have created…and are still creating.  Now, I write about them in terms of sci-fi, but the eyes in that picture are a reminder that the same damned thing has been happening for centuries.  Worse than that, it has been happening as long as we humans have been around…

I do sci-fi and fantasy.  I’ve never tried my hand at historical fiction, but…

…but, holy shit!  How can you look at that picture and not want to tell the story behind those eyes?!  How can you not want to use Private Jemison’s short life to tell the story of those kids who still get pulled into every war — into every disaster and problem — we can create?

We lure them…

IMG_0720We draft them…

We propagandize them…

We indoctrinate them…

Then we kill them.

*sigh*

Musical Note — I’ve used this particular song in a post before, but I can’t think of a single damned thing to better accompany Private Jemison’s picture:

 

I Don’t Know

Really?  Did you think I wouldn’t do a special post with June 6th right around the corner?  C’mon…

I’m a fairly brave individual…or so I’ve heard.  I’m brave, they say, because there ain’t a whole lot in this world of which I’m well and truly afraid.  There ain’t a whole lot that gets much reaction from me beyond some tension and a shrug of my shoulders.  But…

But, there’s always a but…

But, I’ve never had anyone want to kill me.  Oh, I’ve had people want to kick my ass — had a lot of them try, too.  I’ve had bears contemplate just how I’d taste garnished with some berries and a nice drink of fresh spring water.  I’ve even had a wolf pack stalk me for a couple of miles…

But I’ve never had anyone really try to do me in, however.  Never had anyone whose own life depended on ending mine.

I’ve never waded ashore with the freight-train sound of shells ripping overhead.  I’ve never heard the snap of a bullet just feet away.  I’ve never felt the ground shake from explosions, never had my eardrums blown out from the concussions.  I’ve never had my life lie in the hands of compatriots on either side of me.

I’ve never seen the blood flow from a fresh chest wound.  I’ve never heard the screams and moans of the wounded and dying.

When you get right down it, I’ve never felt the reality of true, undeniable, unstoppable fear.  

I can’t tell you — just as I can’t tell myself — if I would have been a hero or a coward on D-Day, because I just don’t know.  I don’t know, and I never will.

Look, I’ve mentioned before that Naval History is one of my great passions.  I’ve mentioned also that that topic, along with video games, is how I got started writing professionally.  I may be an expert in Naval History, but I’m an expert who has never lived it.

I don’t know, and I can’t know…not truly.

Oh, I’ve done oral history interviews with Marines who waded ashore at some of the most godforsaken places in the world, just as I’ve done interviews with sailors who lived through some of the worst battles in history.  I’ve talked to, and learned from, men who swam away from an exploding ship, only to spend days more in the water…only to watch their buddies, their fellow survivors, get pulled under one by one by the circling sharks.

I’ve listened to all that, just as I’ve written about all that.  I’m considered an expert on all that…

…and I don’t know.

I don’t know, and I can’t know.  I don’t know it because I never lived it.  It is all, when you get right down it, just words and images to me.  Just emotion and memory learned second- and third-hand.

“I didn’t do a damned thing.  I just worked in the mailroom.  Now my buddy John, he was the real hero…” so said a former sailor, a man in his late 80’s.  A man who fought in, and survived, the most surprising and impressive victory in the long history of the US Navy.  A man who worked in the mailroom on the Sammy B Roberts…a man whose worst day involves more courage and accomplishment than the entire sum of my life…

It’s always someone else, to those Marines and sailors I’ve talked to.  It’s always that buddy, the one who brings a wordless tear to their eyes.  It’s always those who are lost, but are never forgotten.

That man died not long after I spent a couple of hours with him.  He died without me ever expressing my gratitude…or my awe.

Just as those who truly remember June 6th, 1944 are dying.  Just as those who heard the ripping of bullets, and the freight-train rumble of shells.  Those who felt the fear, and still waded ashore.  Those who lost friends and brothers, and still waded ashore.  Those who know.

We’ve all heard Eisenhower’s plan, just as we’ve all heard the codenames: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword.  We’ve heard those things, but they are just mnemonics…talismans that no longer do a good job of invoking the reality that truly matters:

4,414 Allied soldiers died on June 6th, 1944.  Most were from the US, UK, and Canada, but losses came also from Poland, Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands.

Almost 9,000 soldiers in German uniform died that day, as well.

7B620855-2577-4D9F-8C52-79AB7156719CI’ve never heard the drums of war, and I don’t know.  I don’t know, but I know enough to pay my heartfelt respects to those who do…to those who were there.