Another Sunday, this one falling on a weighty day for us. Time for another trip through the curio cabinet holding the mementoes of family members who played out their roles in so many (apparently) forgotten wars and exploits.
There’s the label from the bottle of Cremant Superior champagne granddad and a couple of mud-encrusted French poilu caught a buzz on this day 100 years ago, trundling a lorry full of “boche” prisoners back from the front when a blue-coated soldier jumped on their truck, handed him the bottle, and said: “Les guerre est finie.”
According to granddad’s diary the Frenchman had to repeat the phrase a couple of times, the victors hitting off the bottle each time, smiles spreading as the reality began to sink in. We are going to make it.
Not everyone did, of course. Also in the cabinet is a photo of granddad with his mates, three of whom were turned into a pink mist at an unnamed crossroads their detachment was guarding in Belgium when a well-placed German shell whooshed in and riddled all three – granddad writing about jumping over their corpses in a search for cover.
Over to the right from granddad’s memories of service with the 91st Division, “San Francisco’s Own,” there’s evidence of another war the first one failed to stop, with propaganda leaflets the Germans used to mortar over our Uncle Lou’s position in Italy. You know the type: Oily-haired, shirking 4F’er knotting his tie and leaving the bedchamber of a well-satisfied and scantily clad lady friend, the cad smirking under the cruelest of German captions: “While you’re away…”
“Not a lot of those around,” Lou used to say on Veterans Day when we kids would gather around and he would open the box of .30 cal he used to store his war trophies. “We used them for toilet paper. There’s not a lot of paper at the front.”
Deeper into the box were the German pistols, the assault and wound badges he would collect from the vanquished – captured or dead – the pins usually torn off the backs because GIs didn’t waste much time on niceties and didn’t like standing in one place for too long in those days.
There was a picture of him, since lost, a studio shot taken of him in uniform as many of “the boys” did before they went to war, young and fit and tough with a nose that had already been pushed around some and room on his sleeves for the rockers and overseas stripes to come.
Sometimes he would let us hold his CIB, the silver musket on a field of blue enamel enclosed by a wreath intriguing to us kids even if we didn’t know why.
Apparently, medics at the battalion aid station Lou was rushed to after he was wounded the third time stripped him of all his “souvenirs,” looting him of most of his captured medals and the “Schmeisser” machine pistol he was using when the Germans used one of their own guns to stitch him neatly across the chest – putting an end to his war and, after time in hospital, enabling him to return home a combat-wounded infantryman.
Further along in our time cabinet and just years after Lou came home there are more medals in the case, another folded American flag, a Japanese flag, more propaganda leaflets – this batch left to flutter over American lines by North Korean soldiers fighting with a little help from the Chinese.
Where German propaganda was subtle, Korean – or “ChiCom” propaganda as Cousin Don called it – was as bombastic then as it is now, with heroic Korean military personnel overrunning panicking and fleeing Americans. Don, a combat medic, had his pictures, too – a shredded hill called “Pork Chop,” his tank battalion on parade, their armor hulls painted with the faces of tigers or dragons to frighten the enemy, and a bronze star – near as we can figure from the regimental history given for pulling wounded crewmen from a burning tank.
“Eh,” Don would say when we’d ask about the medal. “They gave those things out with the C Rations…”
Few in the family made it to Vietnam, blessed by circumstance or birthdate, though we have pictures from there of a kid we knew from high school who used to tell us of nights when the NVA, shouting across the paddies at the Americans in their positions, would yell: “Why do you fight us? In ten years we’ll be doing business together…”
The NVA, apparently, didn’t have access to a lot of paper, but our friend used to say how they turned out to be right, with American banks and a Jake’s American Barbecue franchise in Ho Chi Minh City as we speak.
Vietnam, see, made us question things a little more – to ask what was really going on behind the scenes, what would motivate our leaders to send troops to “conflict zones” both hot and inactive, and where good people were getting killed while politicians postured.
On this Veterans Day we pause to remember them, the troops, and ask how we are prepared to deploy them in the future. Spending Thanksgiving in a tented compound in Donna, Texas waiting for an “invasion” that may be a figment of one man’s imagination? In a futile search for conjured up Weapons of Mass Destruction that took even more lives and may well have left the nation bankrupt?
We have to ask. They can’t.