The Sacrifice of Strangers

It’s funny how the great injustices of our childhood convert into gratitude as we age. For instance, when I was a young teen, I was sure my great-grandfathers were the only two old men who didn’t actually fight in World War II—and I wasn’t happy about it.

During my teen years, I devoured books about World War II, watched any black and white movie I could get my hands on at the library, collected special edition WWII magazines, listened to big band music non-stop, and longed for the day when I could see Pearl Harbor and Saving Private Ryan (when I got a little older). I even wrote a novel, titled This Side of Forever, about a family with four sons, each of whom served in a different branch of the military.

Even as an amateur researcher, I knew that first-hand resources were the best. So I wanted to actually talk to someone who was on the battlefield. On one of our visits to Maryland to spend time with family, I decided to ask my great-grandfathers about their experience in the war.

But they just chuckled at their luck. No, they hadn’t seen combat, they said with relief. Just drafted but never sent overseas. And from there, the stories pretty much trickled off.  Pap Gaylor trained in the navy even though he couldn’t swim. Pap Shank’s story was so unremarkable, I can’t even recall it.

I deserved better material to work with.

For a while, I resented the idea that my heritage was so bereft of harrowing, bomb-and-bullet-ridden war stories. I, the writer, deserved better material to work with.

Through the years, I have met veterans who did fight in the war, such as Mr. Smith, the man who lives across the street from my parents. He’s short—as if, when he lied to join the army at 17, he stopped growing, like a clock stopping to mark the death of his youth. I go over to visit when I can, hoping to hear a little more of his story about the war that left him with a shattered shoulder and a glass case of metals. Each time, I hug him goodbye because I don’t know how to say “thank you”—but I know I have to try. His story, after all, affects mine—his courage of yesterday ensured my present day freedom.

I thought of Mr. Smith on Monday when I went to a Memorial Day ceremony at the park down the street. As the volunteer choir and orchestra (which, as Laura pointed out, sounded like a volunteer choir and orchestra) played a montage of military branch themes, dozens of veterans hobbled or strutted forward to claim a small flag as a token of thanks. I considered all of them, the strangers who also have stories that somehow relate to me as an American.

But it was the monument in the middle of the park—a marble marker with the words, “MIA POW You are not forgotten”— that brought me the longest pause.* It’s not the soldiers I know or the veterans whose hands I can shake that draw from me the most thanks, but rather these, the ones who died, the ones who, though silent, deserve my most fervent gratitude. It is them in particular that we commemorate on Memorial Day.

And despite all the teenage angst over my patriarchs’ lack of action, now it means almost more to know that my freedom was secured not by the efforts of my grandfathers, but by the sacrifice of strangers—both the living and dead. And this Memorial Day leaves me remembering and honoring so many people whom I’ve never even met.

Oh, you should also know that I’ve long since forgiven my great-grandfathers of their nondescript stories. The older I get, the more grateful I am for those who “also serve who only stand and wait.”**



*At the Memorial Day ceremony, our mayor shared the story of a local woman who was finally able to find peace after her brother’s remains were found 70 years after his plane went down during the Battle of the Bulge.  Similarly, my absolutely favorite Memorial Day story involves an entire town of Les Ventes, France, during WWII, and a soldier named Billie Harris whose plane was shot down at the edge of the town. Sixty years later, after decades of searching for her husband’s whereabouts, Harris’ wife was shocked to find that the town had honored her husband with a parade every year since he died. I hope you’ll read the story.

**This is taken, of course, from Milton’s “When I Consider How My Light is Spent.”


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