Wednesday, August 18, 2010

War Photos

My mother's father served in WW2; he was in the Navy and at the time he entered (1943) the government offered seventeen year old high school students a HS diploma if they dropped out rather than finishing their senior year, and entered the military. He spent a year following land combat, his job was to collect the dead bodies of fellow troops and the dog tags to be returned to the family of the dead.

A letter from my grandpa's oldest brother Earle reports to the family the day he and their father said good-bye to Ray. He hopes to work in the mess kitchen on the Island of Hawaii, Earle writes home, or at least get some more training before he is shipped.

The one picture in the box of old war memorabilia that strikes me most is the picture of an older Japanese woman sitting on her knees with her hands in prayer position, her body tiny, her face sunken inward. On the back of the photo my grandpa wrote "Japanese woman begging for a smoke." It seems like he too felt a sense of desperation towards the woman. Hers and his own. Wouldn't he also beg for a smoke if he had none? I don't know that he thought this, but its the only picture in the bunch where he's written something other than a date and place on the back. It is also a picture my aunt refers to most when she talks about the box of old stuff. For some reason my aunt didn't want the box; when I came to borrow it she told me to keep it. I brought it to my mother's house where she and my brother spread its contents over the carpet in the living room. My brother only one year younger than my grandfather was when he left for war.

My brother wants to see the dog tag my grandfather wore and I agree, silently, that this object captures the imagination and sentiment most. As the object my grandfather wore as well as its purpose--to identify his dead body should he be killed--the dog tag which is only named after the obvious, the ID tag dogs wear, fascinates us all. I suppose, in us we realize that this tag could have been used for its true purpose, wiping our existence from time in an instant. But, I don't we think of that when we want to see it. Rather, there is something mysterious about objects of the past--the ring a grandmother wore for fifty years, the gold band worn down to a sliver, or a bowl a great-grandmother used to make bread.

We are all drawn to the story of our origins, to the story of the past. The details of a daily existence, the glory of a story in which something odd occurs. We want to recognize a past different from someone else's past. We want a history that is uniquely ours.

I don't understand how this desire arises, but I relate to it, see it as my own.

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