A tale of three veterans

Today's post starts with a story -- a story from Grandpop Taraborelli.

The scene: My grandparents' living room. My cousins and I are playing on the green shag carpet. Grandpop is sitting in the armchair. I am 8 years old.

Grandpop: Kids. Kids! C'mere. Did I ever tell you about the time I fought the Japs? When I was in the war?

Kids: Nooo! (we scurry over and sit at his feet)

Grandpop: Well I tell ya, it was the scariest thing I've ever done. First we had to hike to camp. It was 100 degrees out. And we got caught in a blizzard.

Kids: Oooooooo.

Grandpop: And we had to walk uphill. Both ways.

Kids: Aaaaaaaa.

Grandpop: But then we saw them. The Japs. Our enemy. There were hundreds of 'em.

Cousin: Whadja do, Grandpop?

Grandpop: Well, I only had one bullet. So I asked all them Japs to line up in a straight line. And I put the gun on my shoulder, and I took real good aim, and POW! I shot that one bullet through all of 'em.

Boys: WOW.

Girls: Eww.

Grandpop: (shakes head) But I wasn't fast enough. (he rubs the side of his torso)

Cousin: (gulps, whispers) Why? What do you mean, Grandpop?

Grandpop: One of 'em got me. He stabbed me real good with his bayonet. Right here. In my side.

Cousin: Nuh-uh, Grandpop. You're LYING.

Grandpop: Oh yeah? Then take a look at THIS!

Grandpop whips up his shirt. We see a jagged scar on his abdomen. Grandpop wasn't lying.


End scene.

This, ladies and gentlemen, was my first exposure to World War II.

At the time, I didn't know that you couldn't shoot one bullet through 100 people. I didn't know that Japs was a derogatory term (my parents cleared that one up real fast). And I definitely didn't know that Grandpop's scar was from his appendix removal.

As I got older and learned about the war, the gaps in the oft-repeated how-I-got-this-scar story filled out. My grandfather had been in the CBI theater. He told me he was a mechanic and a foot soldier. He spent time on board a ship where they pranked the officers during the night. If he actually killed Japanese soldiers, he's never said. (I assume he did. I also assume it took more than one bullet.)

I heard my grandmother's stories too, told to me as I thumbed through her rations-centered Victory Cookbook. She moved in with my great-grandmother once Grandpop left. Their oldest child -- my uncle -- cried when Grandpop came home on leave because he didn't know what to do about the strange man sleeping with his mother. Grandpop went AWOL once so he could spend more time with Grandmom. She reused everything, saved everything, cut corners on everything.

And there was a third story -- this time from my Grandpop Rocchi. Except it's a non-story, because he never talked about his experiences. All he revealed was his station (Panama, Pacific Theater). It was the historical equivalent of a job reference who can't speak kindly of a candidate: "Yes, Mario was here."

How can this be, I thought. Why are Grandmom and Grandpop T. so ready to share, but Grandpop R. won't peep? Didn't they see the same things, fight the same fight? There I was, gobbling up every sepia-toned story I could find, and he was just sitting on a treasure trove of knowledge, not budging an inch.

This Veterans Day, I find myself replaying my grandparents' stories and silences, and my adult perspective casts a different, sharper light.

For example, I now see that my younger self had latched onto the era's romance. I thrived on the human dramas, sorrow, and celebration. To this day I can't stand in Philadelphia's 30th St. station without picturing Grandmom T. climbing onto one of the benches and waving so Grandpop could find her when he disembarked, home for good. War in my young mind was not a march toward death and destruction; it was a ticker tape parade preceded by a mere scuffle.

I've learned more about war since then. History classes showed me the arc from traditional to modern warfare. I watch the footage and read stories from our current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I walk through Arlington Cemetary, where only a fraction of our soldiers are buried. The crosses stretch, it seems, for miles.

I've learned more about life too. Everything about World War II seemed so pat, so cut and dry when I read about it in books. But now I see the complexity of international conflict and diplomacy, how it's never just one issue or one country.

In WWII's case, I'm astounded that the whole world could topple into conflict like that, as if a master hand had laid out the dominoes for a quick game and ended up knocking over the walls. The war's course was a labyrinth of complicated human decisions. A mere whim could have changed civilization's history. It still could. The enormity of that idea leaves me breathless.

This would be an excellent point to reveal why Grandpop R. was silent about his service and bring this reflection to a dramatic, profound conclusion about human nature in the face of conflict. Except I don't know. I never got an answer before he died, and I've never followed up with anyone else about it.

But I don't think I need one. My grandparents' opposite expressions of wartime capture the triumph, fear, and ambiguity of such conflicts. What's more, it reminds me that each soldier (whether on the battlefield or homefront) views these events through a unique lens comprised of their past, their morals, their decisions.

Once and future history books cannot impart such varied and expansive versions. Only those who were there can. Only veterans can fill between the lines and reveal the truth about peace, war, and the chaotic spectrum they bookend.

So today I think about my grandparents, their fully lived lives, and how much I will never understand because I wasn't there with them. I'm thinking of the people who are living similar sacrifices and choices right now, and how I stand a better chance of understanding if I ask, listen, and stand beside them.

I pray that one day war is a sepia relic and the term 'veteran' is outmoded. Until then, I say thank you to all who serve our country, and I hope you tell your grandchildren your truth.