My father never talked about the war. Even when we went to a commemorative event in France where he had been stationed in 1944, just north of Paris. An event with all the pomp and circumstance of town bands, bunting, a mayor's speech and champagne reception, military brass, and the American Embassy attache. Even when we stood on the abandoned A-71 airfield in the countryside, where his planes had taken off and landed. Even as we looked around, with the handful of other American Veterans, trying to figure out where the commissary had been and the tents they'd lived in through the coldest winter in a century, which made my father hate even the idea of camping forever after.
My father was a navigator/bombardier in WWII. With his crew, he flew dozens of missions into Germany. From my mother I learned that he enlisted in the Air Force so that he wouldn't have to see the people he was killing, which he knew he couldn't do. Family lore has it that he ate carrots until his skin started to turn yellow in order to pass the eye exam for the Air Force. At 26, recently married, with a stepdaughter and a new baby, he was considered the old man on his crew.
When I finally got old enough to be interested in my father's life and asked him about the war, he would tell me stories that made him laugh. Stories about the guy who snuck his French girlfriend on base in the back of a supply truck. "He had her living with him in his tent." Until somebody higher up heard about it and sent the woman packing. Stories about the guy who was a genius at "scrounging" stuff. "He could find anything: firewood, food, liquor." He especially liked the girlfriend story. The audacity of it. The refusal to surrender youth and mischief.
Not one word about flying, flak, losing crew members, friends, what he faced every time he climbed into that plexiglass bubble under the nose of the plane, knowing there was no way out for him if they were hit. Not a word about the killing cold they endured at 15,000 feet. When pressed he'd say that he would memorize every map for every mission, so that if they were shot down, they'd have a prayer of finding their way out. I could never bring myself to ask how many navigator/bombardiers actually lived through crashes, as it seemed impossible to me.
My father survived the war when so many others didn't. The mid-range B 26 bomber, the Martin Marauder, was known as "The Widowmaker." But he came home and suffered for years from what was then called battle fatigue, what we now know as PTSD. My siblings remember him waking from his nightmares, screaming. I wasn't born yet, so have no memories of my own. Still, I tried on several occasions to learn more about this time in his life. He would never answer and I found it difficult to press him; it felt like an invasion of his privacy. I look at pictures from those years and can see the hollows under his eyes, his clothes hanging loosely on his shockingly thin frame. My brother remembers my mother saying, "The fellow I married didn't come home from the war."
It was 2002 when all the surviving airmen who had been stationed in Clastres received an invitation from a group of French citizens to a memorial and celebration of those who had served in the war. My father was 84. I asked if he'd like to go, and if I could take him. He surprised me by saying yes. He had never belonged to the VFW or to the American Legion. It was only at this point, very late in his life that he was moved to revisit his past.
We would fly to Paris, visit Normandy and the landing beaches, make a circuit of the Somme River Valley, and end our trip in Clastres for the commemorative events.
I thought to myself: Now. Finally. We will talk about these things.
At the American cemetery in Normandy other visitors realized that my father might be a veteran. Several approached him eagerly, wanting to ask him about the war. His answer was always the same, as he looked out over the rows and rows of graves: "Nothing like this should ever happen again."
In some ways, I know now, I was hopelessly naïve, wanting my father to "share his stories." The gut-wrenching truth, something that any soldier will tell you, is that you can't talk about it. For several reasons. First, for my father, a desire to protect me. Second, the minute you make it a story, you've started to lie; you have to choose a point of view, embellish, or leave things out. Third, anyone who does go on and on about what happened, probably wasn't there.
You'd think that would be that. My father's privacy respected, my curiosity put to bed. Instead, it has been like any family secret, growing more and more fascinating the longer it remains out of view.
Why else have I written about war so extensively, from so many points of view? Yes, I've been inspired by peace activists and yes, I'm fascinated by history in general and the history of war in particular. But I know it's the emotional hook that keeps me coming back to to excavate these stories and finally, in my first novel, to write directly about a father gone to war and the effects of the war on those left at home.
My father is gone now. I have my parents' letters from the war years, a flag, a few issues of Stars and Stripes, a linen map. As I hold the letters in my hands, potent reminders of my parents' hopes, their fears, their voices, I try to imagine my way into the heart of their experience, and through them, into the lives of all families sacrificing a loved one to a war. Even if they come home, we now know, they will be forever changed.
This Veterans Day, as I think of my father, I am grateful that he taught me such a profound respect for quiet. In the midst of excited children, waving flags, the sound of marching feet and high school bands, I will find myself thinking of my father's silence, both its limitations and its extraordinary strength. He showed his devotion not by spilling his secrets, but by shielding me from them. In addition, he sparked a lifelong curiosity and empathy. He gave me the most profound gift you can give a writer: he taught me to pay attention to all that is not said, to be alive to the mysterious silences that surround us. And he inspired me to try to give voice to that silence.