The strange thing is that all of the veterans I’ve known — my grandfather, my father-in-law, various uncles — did not gloat about war, ever. My father-in-law didn’t have an ounce of brag in him, and would never have tried to threaten or intimidate anyone. Actually, he’d only reluctantly talk about his experiences in the war, and they’d be more likely to make him teary-eyed and sorrowful than blustery. He had a closet full of medals, and what he’d talk about instead of glory was how his friends died.
–PZ Myers on veterans.
My grandparents were like this, too. Pa was never deployed overseas because he was too valuable to the air force back home as an instructor. He trained pilots to fly those teeny tiny planes they used over the Pacific in WWII. Most everyone else he knew from those days were shot down, and he never forgave himself for not joining them.
Nanna volunteered as a nurse at around the time Darwin was bombed. She tended to the men who’d returned home injured. If the soldiers’ wounds couldn’t kill them, then the hospice’s cholera certainly would. All Nanna could really do was watch.
Granny was a young woman when British soldiers entered Lienz and forced the men into trains, to be returned to Russia and to death. There was a riot. Granny tripped and fell. The only reason she wasn’t trampled to death was because someone threw her through a barracks window. Before they left, the British told the camp’s remaining women and children they’d be back tomorrow for the rest.
Peetie-Pa did scutwork for every army in Europe. He liked the Americans the best because they gave out free chocolate and bubble gum. He liked the Nazis the least, when they chased him and a friend through the snow one night with guns and dogs. Peetie-Pa managed to escape the work camp they were fleeing. His friend didn’t.
I never heard any of these stories from my grandparents themselves. So I never knew why Pa wouldn’t walk into an RSL or why Nanna still feared the Japanese, so many decades after the war had ended. Peetie-Pa would only talk after half a bottle of White Heather, usually long after I’d been sent to bed. Granny kept her story on a faded piece of typewriter paper, covered in corrections from where she’d submitted is as a essay to her ESL teacher.
The war had hurt them, all of them, and they didn’t want to relive that, not even to be told they were heroes. They traded agony and glory alike for bland late 20th century Sydney suburbia, hoping desperately their children and grandchildren would never have to go through what they did.
We didn’t, but other people’s children have.