a soldier’s story
today feels like a day for tiptoeing to the attic, unsheathing old papers, nearly crumbling, yellowed papers, papers long ago put to rest.
because the papers tell a story, and the story cannot breathe, cannot be dappled in light and shadow, if not brought down from the attic, not unearthed so as to be told.
today is a day for telling soldiers’ stories, today is a day for bringing the dead to life. if only in the scraps of biography. if only all we know are bits and pieces. and we are left to fill in all the rest, to wonder. to remember.
this is the soldiers’ day, and not to stop to pause to tell their story would be a dishonor i could not live with.
we are only kept from cobwebs, only kept from obliteration if someone stops to tell our story. even if only in bits. even if only culled from family lore, and cemented through the most basic rudiments of life story, a birth date taken from the roster on the inside page of the family bible, the surest method long ago of recording someone’s place and time here on earth.
the only soldier story i know is one that haunted me all my growing up. it is the story of my uncle danny. my uncle danny, so the story goes, was tall and brilliant and had the world ahead of him. he was some 15 years my dad’s senior, more a father than a brother to my papa.
his mother, julia, had died in childbirth, on christmas day, the bible tells me, as she birthed her fourth child.
my papa, born 8 1/2 years later, was the only child of danny’s father and my grandma mae. so my papa was danny’s baby half-brother. and the way i’ve heard it told they were close, mighty close.
uncle danny ran a horse farm, a big one. if you ever baked a cake, you probably used calumet baking powder. calumet was the farm in bluegrass country, just outside paris, kentucky, my uncle danny ran. little gene, my papa, romped like a foal at his side.
folks said, i’m told, that danny mighta been the governor some day. or a senator. he was that smart. that full of promise. now, where these bits of lore begin, i have no clue. but that was the story they told, if you listened. and i was always listening.
uncle danny, like all young men in an age when a draft cut a wide undiscriminating swath, or so it was supposed to, was called to serve his country. a war was going on. the big war. world war II.
my papa, then just about the age, maybe a year or two older than my older one, must have gulped and cried when he said goodbye to his hero, his big half-brother who was like a papa, who let him brush the horses, feed them oats or lumps of sugar. i’ll bet my papa curled in a corner of the barn and heaved some sobs.
uncle danny left. uncle danny fought the war. and, of course, the war fought back.
i don’t know long bits of the story, but i do know this, was always haunted by this: my daddy was the one who came to the door, when the air force people rang the bell. my daddy was the one they told, when they said, “we are so sorry.”
my daddy was the one they handed the telegram. my daddy got the news, alone, that his hero was now a fallen soldier.
uncle danny died on iwo jima, he was sleeping in a tent, the story goes. the japanese came over a hill one dark night and ambushed uncle danny’s tent. he died in his sleep, they say, maybe more hoping than anything. you can only hope.
for dying amid his dreams, for dying there on iwo jima, they gave my uncle danny a purple heart. i’ve never seen it.
it kills me that i don’t know much more about the soldier in my story. i couldn’t even find a picture. only one of my papa, about the time when he was told his brother died.
i did find the page from the family bible with all the birth dates pencilled in. i know uncle danny was born on christmas day in 1912. and his mama died on christmas day, 1919. he was only seven when he lost his mama, on his birthday and christmas all at once. i can’t even find a piece of paper with the date he died.
all i can do is sift through the bits of story i do know, and roll them out. and stop to consider the holes a war puts in a family’s story. in what might have been.
“he never got over it,” my mama says of my papa and the day the telegram came.
to date in iraq, 3,455 american troops have died, the latest just yesterday. someone else, maybe today, not recorded yet. besides the soldiers, at least 64,000 iraqis have also died. i cannot ignore those numbers; all the holes of war.
the holes in all the family stories are nearly incomprehensible.
do you have a soldier story you’d like to tell? we’re listening…