Story Prompt: “How to Tell a True War Story” by Tim O’Brien
People ask me why I became a war photographer. Why did I pick up a camera at forty years old and head off to the hell holes where war devastates so many lives? I don’t talk much about the reason. Most people would not understand why a man keeps doing a thing over and over that is so destructive to his personal life. Ending two marriages and jeopardizing his relationship with his four kids. I have never told anyone this. It is because of my dad.
My dad never talked about the War. The War being World War II. Neither did my Mom. She kept silent for my dad’s sake.
When he came home from the War, he didn’t take the G. I. Bill. “It’s not right,” he said to my mom. He went to working the assembly line for GM, building Chevys. He and my mom saved and scrimped enough money to pay his way through college. He became an engineer since he liked to build things. Ended up building bridges and roads. Seems many of the roads and bridges in the state of Florida one way or another have his stamp on them.
When family and friends or my mom’s church group came over, my dad would head off to his workshop out back. He was not a man to give God no never mind, and he was not a man who craved company much. Our backyard became a playground for my sister and I and our friends. There was a tree house. There were swings and slides and a maze. All kinds of wooden things we played on. All built by Dad.
If a war movie, a “Longest Day” or a John Wayne playing at war, if one of them came on tv, my dad either changed channels or snapped off the movie. He would say, “We’ll have none of that in my house.”
I turned eighteen in 1968. By this time, his hair had turned gray and he looked twenty years older than his forty years. He packed my bags, put me on a bus and sent me off to Canada. His last words in his deep bass voice still ring in my ears, “No son of mine’s going off to Vietnam and get his ass blown off.”
Come 1990 I got the call. My aunt phoned me. Dad was dead. I had not seen him for the twenty-two years since I caught that bus to Saskatchewan. Every time I wrote or phoned, Mom told me that Dad did not want me to come home. The time was not right.
Before I could get my bags out of the cab, my sister Lindy was in my arms, hugging me, crying. Crying hard. Her husband, Dave, paid the driver and took my bags into the house. Lindy didn’t want to let go. It was as if she believed that I would disappear if she let go. Finally I wrenched myself from her arms. That’s when I saw Mom, standing on the porch, her face filled with sorrow.
In the next few days, I heard the stories of my dad’s war. He had been in North Africa and Sicily, fighting with Patton. He was at Omaha Beach in Normandy. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He was among those soldiers who liberated Buchenwald.
Mostly the stories came from our aunts. They told us that Dad had medals “up the wazoo”. Even the Purple Heart and a Silver Star. But there were no medals for us to see. No pictures of my dad and his buddies in uniform.
I asked Mom, “Where’s Dad’s medals?” She didn’t answer. She just slipped away into the kitchen.
Aunt George said, “He buried everything. When he came home from the war, he buried his uniforms. Any pictures we had. All his medals. My mom begged him not to. But nothing would stop him.”
“Where did he bury them?” I asked.
Later that night, I stood on the porch. Uncle Jack and I were drinking a couple of Buds. He said to me, “You know your dad shot himself on purpose. It wasn’t an accident. He meant to do it.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “No,” I said, angry at Jack for accusing Dad of something I just knew he wouldn’t do. I knotted my fists and got ready to strike.
“He knew guns too well for it to be an accident.”
I sat down on the porch and went to catch my breath. “But why?” I asked.
“I think he had enough of all the nightmares. Most of us were able to leave the war behind. Not your dad. He’d seen way too much of it.”
“I should have come back sooner,” I said, then downed the last of the beer in the can.
“You wouldn’t have been able to stop him. In fact, he might have done it sooner if you had been here.” His words were no consolation.
They lowered his casket into the grave. The soldier went to hand Mom the flag. She hesitated taking it, but she finally did.
Everybody left, but I lingered behind. I tried to recall Dad’s face. I couldn’t summon up that face. My mind was blank. I was numb all over. I went to say something to the man in the grave, but nothing came. After a while, I walked away. I joined Jack in his car.
“You alright?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I mean I don’t know.”
He drove on. Both of us quiet. Everything had been said. There was nothing else to say. Back at the house, I did the socially acceptable thing and spent time with all those who came by to express their condolences. Then I slipped off and climbed up into the tree house. The tree house I had spent so many good days in.
In the dark, I sat listening to the night. The crickets were chirping, filling the summer night with their music. I wanted to cry, to weep, but the tears just were not coming. Softly I prayed to the night, “Dad, I love you. And I miss you. My God, if you only knew how much I miss you. There isn’t a day that passes when I don’t think of you. I became an engineer because you were an engineer. I married and became a father because of you. Oh, I love Mel but I would never have had the courage to take on a wife and kids had it not been for you. Now, you go and do this. Why couldn’t you just share with me all the crap you went through. Maybe I could have helped.”
For two years after that night, I was in a fog. I flew back to Mel and the kids. Went back to work on the project I was on. For a year I was a zombie. Mel, the kids, they knew something was wrong. One night I was watching the news, or maybe it was some documentary. It was a war zone. Later Mel and the boys were off to bed. I sat alone in the dark in the living room.
The fog cleared. It all came to me in an instant. I knew what I had to do.
The next day I went out and bought a camera. Then I caught the next flight to Sarajevo.