Lunch with a Myth

Posted: August 29, 2013 in Uncategorized
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By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

This past weekend, I felt like I was having lunch with a character straight out of myth.

My dad’s VFW post held its annual summer picnic. It was a nice afternoon of food, fun, and chatting for the veterans and their families. At my table were a handful of Vietnam veterans, my dad included, whom I see every week.

Then there was Jim: a World War II veteran.

Jim is in his 90s, and he can’t be more than 5’2” and 100lbs. Yet, he is deceptively fit and spry. He gets around on his own, he is mentally sharp, he can see and hear better than all of the Vietnam vets, and he ate more than I did. I lost count of how many plates of food and ears of corn he went through.

Jim was there by himself, and he didn’t say much during the meal. After eating, he took off his “World War II Veteran” hat, placed it on the table as if saving his spot, and wandered off. While he was gone, my dad asked if Jim had ever told me his story. ww2 hat

Generally, it seems all veterans have lots of stories about their days in service. But, it seems like many also have their one big go-to story – that one story that, if they only have a chance to tell you one war story, this is the one. Over my years of going to the post with my dad for events and volunteer work, I’ve heard a good number of these stories, mostly from the Vietnam vets.

But, I’d never heard Jim’s story.

My dad explained that Jim and his platoon were marching along a hedgerow in France that cut off line of sight to the other side. At some point, the hedgerow either ended or there was sudden visibility through the hedges, and to their surprise, a platoon of German soldiers (who were equally surprised) were marching along the other side. A firefight ensued. Jim was shot, but he “won” and obviously survived.

As my dad told the story, I was picturing the events like this:

The hedgerow was perfectly manicured and the day was just slightly gloomy. My perspective hung twenty feet over the ground, looking down on two rows of soldiers. The Americans were all dressed in clean, shiny, perfectly pressed green army outfits. All of the men were ruggedly handsome with square jaws and five o’ clock shadows. Jim was now 6’2” and 190lbs, his biceps exposed and flexed to hold on to an oversized gun. The Germans were also well put together, but wearing gray uniforms with bold, red swastikas stitched on. All of them were unattractive. When the shooting started, it was bloodless even when people were hit. Jim was struck, but while falling backward in slow motion, he fired back. He found his mark, and then collapsed into the grass and the camera receded into the sky, looking down as soldiers ran to his aid.

When Jim sat back down at our table, I glanced over at him and had this weird sensation like he wasn’t even real. “A World War II veteran? It can’t be!” It was like if I had seen the kids at the picnic getting pony rides on a unicorn.

I was caught off guard by this feeling, because I was already aware that there are a few World War II vets at the post, including Jim who I’ve run into several times. And, obviously, I know World War II happened and that real people were involved.

Yet, for some reason, it suddenly felt like I was seated at the table with a character out of myth. In the days since, I’ve wondered why. I have two potential reasons:

Reason 1

Undoubtedly, many college students today don’t know much about the Vietnam war. I found this out my first year of teaching in 2007 when I asked a class which countries fought in the war, and after several moments of awkward silence, one student finally said, “America???”

I can’t blame the students, though. This year’s class of incoming Freshmen was born 20 years after the end of the war, and many current students have parents who weren’t even born when the Vietnam War started.

I was born just over 7 years after the fall of Saigon, but my dad was in Vietnam nearly a decade before that. Vietnam always felt real to me, for obvious reasons. I grew up with a Vietnam vet telling me war stories all the time. I saw his pictures – the ones the army let him keep – and nothing about it looked glamorous. Rare were the pictures of soldiers wearing clean, shiny, perfectly pressed outfits. No one was a Sylvester Stalone sculpted Rambo; everyone looked skinny, tired. They all looked like kids. They were kids.

secret-wartime-tunnels-entrance-doverWorld War II, on the other hand, I’ve had limited “real” exposure to. To my knowledge, none of my immediate family fought in the war. My grandfathers were both too young to fight in WWI and then too old for WWII. My dad was only three-years-old when WWII ended and my mom was not yet born. I’ve seen museum exhibits, and I’ve been inside the Secret Wartime Tunnels in Dover, England that served as a military headquarters for Winston Churchill and the British. I’ve had history classes, I’ve read textbooks, I’ve watched documentaries, I’ve worked with history buffs like Michael Stelzer Jocks.

Yet, still, World War II seems so distant and feels as “real” to me as even more distant conflicts like the Civil War or the Revolutionary War.

Reason 2

World War II is such an amazing story: Good Guys v. Bad Guys, American Heroes vs. history’s ultimate supervillain Adolf Hitler.

Oh, wait. There’s more to the war than that?

I know there is when I stop and reflect logically. The horror of the war is overwhelming: the tens of millions of fatalities, the genocide, the atomic bomb. It is hard for me to even process the scale of the war. Thinking of it as real is beyond sickening. Maybe that’s why some American versions of the events are slightly-glamorous tales of Good triumphing over Evil.

My most frequent exposure to the war has come through art. I’ve read Night by Elie Wiesel and Maus by Art Spiegelman. I’ve seen my share of WWII movies. Some art does try to reflect back on the reality of the war, but still, it is art rather than experience. Night

captain-america-poster-newWWII also crops up in not-so-real fictional films like Inglorious Basterds and Captain America. It’s hard to see WWII as a real event in a film involving a shield-toting superhero fighting a skinless, red supervillain.

I’ve seen WWII through a fictionalized lens so many times that when I heard a real WWII story, my mind immediately saw it through that lens.

So, there is Jim, sitting at the table. He is more than 60 years older than me and participated in a war of mythic proportions 40 years before my birth. Of the more than 16 million Americans who served in the war, he is one of approximately 1.7 million alive today.

I am old enough to remember the Gulf War. I was in college when 9/11 happened. I watched those conflicts unfold. Like us all, I see people daily who have served in contemporary conflicts. They are real; those conflicts are real. But World War II, it’s harder to imagine it happened when our living links to that event are rapidly dwindling. And it was strange and interesting to see one of the characters in that story sitting at my table, eating lunch with the rest of us.

 

 

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