For An Unknown Soldier

(To honor my father – and all the soldiers who didn’t make it home – I’m sharing this story I first posted Memorial Day, 2012)


My father didn’t cry.

He didn’t believe in it; he didn’t like what he called those “weak, goddamn emotions.” When I was a toddler I swallowed paint thinner as my parents were busy (and distracted) painting our house.  My father silenced my mother’s tears as he rushed us in the truck to the hospital. “Stop your crying!” he ordered her. “It’s too late for crying!”

And she stopped.

We all learned to stop. We followed his lead, replacing tears with strength, courage, and many times anger. He was a good role model, and we followed his command.

I only saw him cry once.

I didn’t actually witness it – it happened in a phone call. And maybe that’s why it happened at all. Somehow it was safer that way. There was distance, and a kind of privacy. I couldn’t actually see his tears. I only heard the pain, the catch in his voice, the hard sobbing at the other end of the line. I was confused, and lost by those sounds. One minute he was my father, and we were talking. And then, without warning, he was crying – inconsolable and without words.  And I wondered: who was this man at the other end of the phone?

It was a PBS program we were watching – that’s what started it: a documentary about World War II and the infantry. Dad was infantry – he landed at Omaha Beach “90 days plus” – 90 days after the big invasion. They were given rifles left over from D-Day that were covered in dried blood.  He was injured the first night he arrived at the front – a face wound that sent him back to England. It kept him there long enough to miss the bloodiest days of the Battle of the Bulge. I knew these things about my father.  We shared this war together, the two of us – his tomboy of a daughter who used to dress up in his Army reserve fatigues just to feel closer to him. I could always have a conversation with Dad if I asked him about the war. Nothing too personal, no “gut” questions, just “Where did you train?” “What countries did you see?” “How old were you?” Name, rank, and serial number, but nothing deeper.

The PBS show that spring evening, with me 100 miles away and settled in my life, was a part of that sharing. I called him as soon as I saw that World War II program listed on PBS. He knew about and yes, he would watch it. We had a date to talk after the credits had rolled. I called him after the show before he could even dial my number. Maybe that was a mistake. Maybe if I had waited, he would have had some time, a moment to right himself, to hold steady the course.

“What’d you think? Did you like it?” I asked him.

He proceeded to tell me, clinically, objectively.

“Pretty good,” he admitted. “Some of the stuff they get wrong.” he wanted me to know. “It’s not like the movies,” he told me. “It’s not like they’re shooting all the time,” he explained to me. “Sometimes, it just happens.”

I didn’t have time to ask him what he meant – he just kept talking.

“There was one guy from Portland, Oregon. I met him in a bunker. It was about 30 feet wide, a concrete pillbox on the Siegfried line. The Germans had built it – the concrete was very thick. We slept in there one night, four or five hours. At about four o’clock in the morning I had to get up with this Portland guy – there was an entrance into the bunker and we had to guard it while the other guys inside slept. The two of us, that was our job. So of course we started talking, you talk to keep yourself awake. He was from Portland. We stayed on guard maybe for a couple hours, talking about different things. So early in the morning, after our guard duty was over, we all got out of the bunker because we had to go to another place. They never tell you where you’re going.  You just got to go there and set up for whatever you’re going to do. So we’re walking to different places, and I’m digging a goddamn hole at all of these places, and then all of a sudden they tell us they’re taking us in another direction. That’s what happens in combat:  just when you get settled, they change their mind. Something changes. So we go down into this little town, and you can see these big mines in the ground for tanks. And then, all of a sudden, they change their mind again – the head honchos are making judgment calls, see? And you got nothing to say about it, you just go and do what they tell you. So we move back to the area where we were that morning and we came to this ridge, and there’s only two guys in front of me. There’s an officer and we have to pass the officer, and he says, “Keep going until you get hit.” That’s what he says to us.  And he tells us, unlock your rifle and fire at will. So we came out of this little brush area, these two guys and me – this one guy that was on guard duty with me – Portland. He goes off to the right, and this guy who was in front of me went to the left. I figured I had no other way to go – I had to go with one of them.  So I went with the guy who went to the left. I turned down the hill with him.  I don’t know what happened…I found out the next day.  That night I saw the guy laying on the ground all night long. But nobody went to see him or anything.”

He stopped talking.

“Dad?”

A catch in his voice,

“He was…hit.”

There was a silence that ended in sobs.

I waited for him, wanting to comfort but not knowing how.

“He had been hit, a shell came there and hit him. That guy from Portland.”

He cried, and I let him. I don’t remember saying one word, just listening to him cry.  So many years had passed and this story had never been told. He was finally telling it, finally able to find the words.

“I don’t know…why? Why him and not me?” he asked. “Why was my life saved and not his? Why did I go right and live, and not go left and die?”

I didn’t have the answer for him. I don’t know if there is an answer. But I think the question is something he had waited his whole life to ask.

I didn’t understand the significance of my Dad sharing this with me until I started writing this story. My father spent his whole life focused on working hard for his family. It wasn’t enough just to have a job 9 to 5; he was filled with a quest to do big things, to buy land, to build, to make a fortune, to have a purpose in life. He was an ironworker driven to succeed in a way he only knew as success – to build a legacy for his family.

And that meant no crying.

No tears, or feeling weakness, or regret. You dig the holes, you do your job, and above all else, you don’t make friends. My father had many men who called him a friend, but he never sought their friendship, never let them in. I used to ask him, “Dad, why don’t you go out to lunch with that guy when he asks you?” or  “How come you and Mom don’t go to dinner with friends like other people do?” He’d just keep his eyes centered on the television program he was watching and say to me, “I’m not built that way.”

Maybe that’s what saved his life.

He had a choice to go to the right with Portland – the guy who sat up with him late at night, talking about everything, sharing hopes and dreams, and maybe some fears too. You don’t get any closer than sharing late night guard duty outside a bunker in the middle of a war. Why didn’t Dad go to the right with Portland instead of off to the left with another soldier he barely knew? No wonder he never wanted to have close friends. When you get too close and they get hit by a shell, you get hit too.

On this Memorial Day weekend, I will think of that soldier – Portland.  I’ll wonder what his real name was, what kind of family he came from, and what he wanted to do with this life. On Memorial Day, I will put a little American flag on the grave of my father, and wonder if anyone is doing the same for Portland. This year I will think of all the soldiers who didn’t make it home. But I’ll also be thinking of those who did return – changed, and with parts of themselves buried deeply, as deeply as those soldiers who never returned. 

(New to my website? Read my first post, Can You All Hear Me In The Back?)
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33 thoughts on “For An Unknown Soldier

  1. As a Veteran myself, I am always touched by the stories of our elder soldiers. The fact he opened up to you about this is absolutely amazing. Many did not tell their stories. Thank you for sharing.

    • I realized at the time that it was a very special moment for him, and that he finally was able to express something he hadn’t been able to express for so many years. I was glad he felt enough trust to share the story with me.

  2. Great post, Darlene! I’m sure many of our dads had similar experiences that they never shared – must have been the generation. My dad was the same way- never talked about emotions. When he got back from the war, he, like your dad, went to work building a future for the family. The war experience seems to make young men grow up fast and strong.

    • They have no other choice. Lots of sacrifices made that we’re not even aware of. I always think of that whenever I see a young man (or woman) in uniform, and I try my best to be especially kind to them. I appreciate their service, and the sacrifices they make when they put on that uniform.

  3. Hey Darlene,

    Great piece.

    My partner, Klaus, the love of my life–the biggest, perhaps sole, reason I’ve given in to staying alive–is a Vietnam vet who spent two years in combat at Da Nang, Vietnam. He got drafted at 18 (1969), then picked up by the Marines, sent to Camp Pendleton, and the rest is history–and yeah, he also, like your dad and all the rest, grew up real darned fast; like you say, they had no other choice. (And like Credence Clearwater said about that time, “You better learn it fast, you better learn it young…”). Klaus is a native German from a strict family and, sure, that helped him to get through it (“I will survive”); but he is not EVER going to get past the nightmares, and the muffled and desperate tears whenever one of his fellow vet buddies who lived dies or committed suicide or whatever. He is stoic, hardworking as hell, and keeps his distance from people–a little less than your dad, but it’s quite apparent. He always had, still has, people wondering why when they hug him, he can be like a board. He rarely talks about the details–only maybe the large rats sucking on his tongue during the night, those funny stories that “we the people” can laugh at. But the rest remains hidden.

    I’m the lucky one. I will do anything for him. He does nothing but give, give, give–as though he died so many years ago and that’s all there is for him to do now. He considers it his duty back here. When you can name off how many people, innocent ones too, that you killed with heavy, unforgiving artillery, maybe that changes you. Ya think?

    I love your article, because it reminds me how much love there is, and how much love I feel for these kids, they will always be kids; and maybe how hate turns into love through some unexplainable alchemy.

    Shit. The day is done.

  4. An incredible tribute. The survivors carry so much pain. I cared for seniors for a time and I heard one story from this particular senior, he had never told it to anyone, why he chose me, I don’t know, but he cried as he shared it, and I cried with him. His story changed me that day, it made my heart break for soldiers like it never had before. It made me aware of what they go through and how great their sacrifices were/are. I salute your Father, Portland, and all that have fought for our countries. (I say countries as I’m in Canada.) xo

    • I think you played an important role to that senior soldier. How good you were to provide such a safe and nurturing experience so that he could finally express something he’d been keeping inside for so many years. There is a word my husband taught me – in Hebrew, I believe – that means a good deed. The word is “mitzvah.” And I think in many ways it means something that’s even greater than a good deed – it’s almost an act of devine charity for another human being. You did a “mitzvah” for that senior soldier that day – your presence alone, and your words of kindness, helped him do something he hadn’t been able to do for many years. How lucky he was that you were his caregiver.

      • Thank you for that it almost made me cry. I feel like I was the lucky one to have the honour of hearing such a deeply painful story. I guess we both did a a mitzvah! I love that word!

        Shalom

    • Thanks for coming by and reading, Dixie. You can come back and leave a link to your blog site in a comment on this post in case people would like to go over and read your blog. Have a good Memorial Day weekend.

  5. Beautiful post, Darlene! My grandpa was in WWII and never spoke about the war–even when we would ask him. He passed away at age 94 in 2009–we named our youngest after him. The look of hope in the eyes of my grandpa and your dad’s Army pictures tugs at my heart. I’ll be thinking about Grandpa, your dad, and Portland this weekend. Have a great weekend!

  6. What a wonderful tribute to your dad, Darleen. Thanks so much for sharing a story that most of us can’t imagine–I’m sure that your dad had a huge impact on your life. My dad joined the Navy at the age of 16, lying about his age because all of his brothers were serving. My dad died of cancer at the age of 38. He never talked about the war at all. Now, I can understand why.

    • I’m so sorry to learn you lost your dad at such a young age, Bette. At 38, I doubt my dad would have been ready to share that painful remembrance of the war that he eventually shared with me. He must have been in his late 50s when we had that discussion, and I think it only happened because we were separated by 100 miles and were on opposite ends of a phone line. My dad would never have been able to reveal those memories in person with me. It just was too painful and personal.

  7. Thank you Darlene, this is a wonderful story! The feeling your father shared was duplicated by others after returning from their wars…up until today! “Survivor’s Guilt” takes a toll on many young men and stays with them throughout their lives. RIP to all those warriors who are no longer with us…God Bless to those still breathing…Happy Memorial Day to all!

  8. I would have – (do) – loved your Dad Darlene. Nobody should forget the reason behind Memorial Day.
    One year in the 90’s, the Memorial Day parade was cancelled in Seattle due to lack of interest. I was appalled.
    At that time I had a shop in the center of First Ave. I managed to get a coffin, drape it in the American flag and place it on the pavement in front of my shop. Not good for business but some things should take priority.
    Lest we forget!

    • You are one amazing woman, June. I love the stories you tell. Enjoy this Memorial Day – toast the ones who aren’t here with us anymore, give thanks for those that survived, and to the ones who serve today.

  9. What a great fantastic and amazing, impressive and emotional blog post… and me using so many describing words means, I’m nearly in tears… well done, Darlene!!

  10. My dad served in WWII and used to tell stories of the funny things that happened in North Africa and Italy. I watched lots of war movies growing up, but it wasn’t until I went into the service myself that I truly understood why he did. Thank you for this reminder that not all wounds are visible.

  11. Beautiful post, Darlene. I recently took a vacation to Spain and France and went to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial on May 13. I cried just being there, years later. The bravery of our young boys running up that beach to their deaths is hard to comprehend. There are rows and rows of graves of our soldiers, and the bunkers of the Nazis were scattered on the beach. Your father is a hero for his service, and I salute him.

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