War humbles a man. I learned this for myself, and, in a way, learning it humbled me.
When I was young and still green behind the gills, I was fascinated with the very idea that local men I had known forever were veterans who had served this country well. I wanted to talk to each one at length, and I wanted to write about every moment that they could recall.
Walter “Pete” Smith was one of those men. He helped us with every plumbing and electrical problem on our farm, and that work would sometimes spill over in to the houses that my parents rented out on newly-purchased farms as the years rolled by.
One day, Pete was working at one of those homes and I saw this as my great opportunity. I put a tablet in my bike basket and stuck two pens in my pocket. I hunted Dad up to be sure he didn’t need me for awhile.
“Where are you going, Jack?” he asked me, using his favorite nickname for me.
“The Springer farm. I want to talk to Pete about war stories and I am going to write it all down.”
Dad stopped in his tracks. The gist of what he told me is that you just can’t walk up to a man and ask them to recall the most nightmarish chapters of their life. He asked me how I even knew that Pete was a veteran, because it sure wasn’t from Pete talking about it.
“No, I saw the uniform he was wearing in the Memorial Day parade, and I asked somebody and they told me he is a World War II veteran and a hero. So, I have LOTS of questions!”
I never got to ask them.
Keeping it inside
Years later, I learned that my father-in-law was also a World War II veteran. As a young man, he had left his family farm and boarded a Naval ship, and in no time he was homesick and seasick.
Knowing he was there “for the duration” made his sickness nearly unbearable.
He clearly did not want to talk about his war years, so I politely forced myself to leave the subject alone. I told him, though, how much I admired and appreciated him and his fellow veterans.
It still strikes me as ironic that one day out of the blue, Don Sutherland called me, saying he wanted to talk to me about something. He shared with me a personal diary that he had secretly kept during those war years.
He wanted me to put his journal in writing for each of his six sons in time for Christmas that year. He let me know I could ask questions as needed for clarification, but in a subtle way made it clear he wasn’t keen on discussing details of his war years.
He was hale and hearty, out chopping wood every day, helping neighbors with farming. No one would have dreamed that he would die suddenly less than two months after the interesting booklets were unveiled that Christmas Eve.
We owe a lifetime of gratitude and respect to every veteran, and I learned the hard way we have no right to ask anything of them unless they want to share it.
They have already given more than we will ever know.