Today marks the anniversary of the WWII attack on Pearl Harbor. My paternal grandfather served there, as it happens. He was an orderly, a stretcher-carrier. As far as anyone can tell, he spent the forty-eight hours after the bombings hauling bits and pieces of human remains off of burning ships.
I have a picture of my grandfather in his Navy whites. It’s from shortly before he deployed. He is thin in the photo, is the first thing I notice. He is also smiling rakishly, confidently. It’s impossible to tell in the photo whether he is drunk. Probably not; the little my grandmother ever says on the subject is that he was different before he served.
My grandfather is one of those men who never spoke of his military service. At least, not to women and children. It’s possible he spoke of it to my uncles, particularly after they, too, acquired their military service records. My uncle John came back from the first Iraq war with a Bronze Star and combat service. Maybe grandpa and he talked about it then.
In recent years a lot has been said and written and filmed to try to understand the silence of the men who served in WWII. I have read a great many of those books. As a lover of history, of the human scope and face of the past, I find them fascinating and valuable. Yet I also read them for clues. Perhaps somewhere in Band of Brothers or The Pacific or The Greatest Generation is the explanation of how that skinny, smiling man came home an alcoholic who lost job after job and abused his kids.
I expect it’s far, far more complicated than that. I don’t know anything about my grandfather’s Depression-era childhood. I don’t know anything about his immediate post-war life. I don’t know anything about my dad’s childhood except the stories he told us kids. Stories which were always terrifically funny, side-splittingly funny. Those stories raise so many red flags to me, now, as an adult, about the conditions of my father’s childhood.
People are the sum of the actions they take, and they are greater than that. December 7th, 1941 does not justify the abuse my father lived with. Nor does the abuse remove the dogged heroism my grandfather displayed on that day. Since he’s now dead, both of those things exist in only in memory.