War Is Hell … And Veterans’ Kids Know It

By the end of fourth grade,  I’d already memorized the state capitals and learned about Davy Crockett and Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Having been in a Texas Catholic school since the age of 5, I was used to the miraculous and macabre stories of the saints’ lives that the nuns told us during religion classes. I’d yet to become upset by anything I’d learned in school.

Image credit: sites.google.com/site/designwikimrb/education

Image credit: sites.google.com/site/designwikimrb/education

But Ms. Crawford decided to finish up the year with what I assume was her “introduction to the savagry of war” file.  Maybe she’d just seen the newly released Das Boot  and had combat on the brain.  I remember the late-April day when she started talking about war– the windows were open and I could smell the wisteria that grew on the side of the school, which was a welcome whiff because the boys really stunk after running around during recess.

“In which war did the most American soldiers die?” she asked the class.

My hand shot up.  I knew this because my Daddy had been in the war.  I’m not sure I even waited for her to call on me, which was unusual because I was that  girl– the rule follower, the teacher’s pet, the achingly needy student whose eggshell self-esteem depended on being perfect.

“Vietnam,” I answered from my seat in the middle of the room.

“Nope.”

Aghast, I slumped back in my chair as if a bullet had pierced my chest.  That’s what it felt like to be wrong so out loud, so publicly.  My cheeks were burning because I  was ashamed about getting the answer wrong and because I’d spoken out of turn.  I was angry for reasons I didn’t understand; the only the war that mattered to me was the one my Daddy was in.  Even though it was before I was born, and he never ever  talked about it, except when to make a joke that so-and-so food was “worse than they had in Vietnam.”  

I was too scared to laugh at those “jokes” because even at that age I knew there was nothing that funny about Vietnam.  I knew it wasn’t like that stupid show M*A*S*H that made war seem like a collection of pranks and comical hijinks. 

I tried to tune out Ms. Crawford and her “right answer” by re-braiding my hair, which I wore like Laura Ingalls in Little House On the Prairie.  I heard Ms. Crawford say something about the Civil War and how it had a huge “death toll” because it was “Americans killing Americans.”

I didn’t care.  I slumped farther in my chair.  I didn’t know anyone who had fought in the Civil War.  That was an old war for old timely people with muskets and bayonets. It wasn’t scary like Vietnam where people in my family had been.  I didn’t want to count up the number of deaths– for any war.  I didn’t want to talk about it.  What a stupid lesson.

I moped through the rest of class, as feelings stirred in me that I couldn’t articulate or understand. 

Later that afternoon, my mom asked me how school went.

“It was OK.  I didn’t learn anything new.”

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49 thoughts on “War Is Hell … And Veterans’ Kids Know It

  1. Wow! You had my attention from the very first word. I love when you write stories from your childhood. I learn more about you and the picture you paint with your words is so vivid, so clear, so moving. Thank you. Love you and all your stories.

  2. Do you have any idea how fascinating your life is? I could drink every drop of it up — this one in particular makes me want to squeeze the computer screen for more. Beautiful, heartbreaking, honest story – the best of what makes you “you”!

    • It’s never occurred to me to write from this perspective, but I do remember this vividly. Someday I’ll tell the story about how I went beserk after seeing the movie Platoon. That shit about killed me.

    • Thanks. I am sure there is more to say on this topic, but it’s harder to talk about than I realized. I also feel like it’s not really my story…it’s my dad’s, but this was as close as I could come to discussing it.

  3. I love this line: “I was angry for reasons I didn’t understand; the only the war that mattered to me was the one my Daddy was in.” So true, so true. I enjoyed this little trip back in time to 4th grade. I can just smell the stinking boys.

  4. Such a human reaction: what matters is what hurt my family. Makes me think about how few people consider the real effects of war on vets because nobody in their family has been in the military.Or how many people don’t realize how devastating to a whole generation was World War I just because we don’t remember what our grandparents and great grandparents said about it. How many Americans can tell you right now the sum total of American soldiers’ limbs lost in Iraq and Afghanistan this millennium.

    Tragedies all over the world are going ignored because we, collectively, know so few Syrians, North Koreans, North Africans, Iraqis…

    Sweet pouting little girl. You obviously did learn that day.

    (And I still have all my public failures ricocheting inside my head, too. Every one of them.)

  5. Great post. I love how different our backgrounds are – my parents, of course, marched against the war. My ex-brother -in-law fought in Vietnam, and I know he was never the same. He said Platoon was very accurate, which made me wonder if you were doing some vacuuming for Pops!

    • Oh that was discussed. When my parents went to see it, as I recall, my mother walked out pretty earlier on in the movie. If Jeff had that past, I am not sure I’d be all “hey, let’s go watch this for entertainment.” Tricky. Fuck. I can’t believe that people survive shit like that.

  6. Please, please write a memoir! Little outlaw mama has a lot to say that I’m dying to read. This post is beautiful.

    • Oh little outlaw mama is brimming with impressions and stories and misunderstandings. Someday maybe a memoir as serialized here on this blog. THank you for saying so.

  7. My uncle was in Vietnam and it’s only been in the last 10 years or so that he’s started acknowledging it. There is nothing more humiliating than being corrected by the teacher on something so personal and imortant.

  8. As usual, you’ve got it right.

    THIS is incredible:

    “I didn’t know anyone who had fought in the Civil War. That was an old war for old timely people with muskets and bayonets. It wasn’t scary like Vietnam where people in my family had been.”

    I guess Ms. Crawford didn’t realize she’d touched a raw place in your heart.

  9. This will be a perfect example to remember when our children come home with the same feeling of not having received any new information that day. My father was in Vietnam as well. He only talks about the food.

    • It reminds me of going places that are terrible — Kay S’s house in second grade or the lunch rooom in fifth grade– that were terrible for a host of reasons, but I focus on the horrible snacks and stinky meat. Easier that way.

  10. The smell of wisteria was one of the details that really grounded this. I love how you told this as a memory, and yet you did so with the childhood perspective. I don’t have that experience with my parents, as my dad was in the reserves but saw action. I feel for the little-kid you, in that classroom with a teacher who wasn’t sensitive to the experiences that might have been had in that classroom.

  11. Wow – what a mix of feelings. I was right there with you as your cheeks burned and your chest caved. I remember that vulnerable feeling too well and felt it as you described it. Seems like such an insensitive way to talk about war and death to young children, especially kids who likely had veteran parents. Has your dad ever opened up to you about his experiences there? I imagine it would be terrifying and fascinating. Beautiful writing as always!

  12. Boy, do I get you. “…I was that girl– the rule follower, the teacher’s pet, the achingly needy student whose eggshell self-esteem depended on being perfect.” I was that girl, too. Being wrong in public was about the most humiliating thing I could have ever imagined. Until the day the photo of me sitting cross-legged in a dress with my panties showing was in the newspaper.

    As the daughter of a soldier, and the wife of a soldier, I also get you. For me, nothing will ever compare to the anxiety of my husband’s deployment. I’m glad I got a bit of perspective into how my boys will view it, too.

  13. It’s really like you absorbed the seriousness and horror of war from your dad, without him ever having to say anything. And talking about numerous people dying in war felt wrong to you. This was wonderfully told.

  14. Great writing, the voice is perfect.
    Learning is interesting, isn’t it? The most (apparently) trivial event can come back and sock you round the head, years later, and say, ‘hey, remember me?’

  15. It’s shocking to me that even WWII pales by comparison. My grandparents and all the relatives on Mom’s side were very Southern (which made my parents’ being a couple of liberal hippies VERY awkward) and grew up steeped in useless Civil War Trivia. (My ancestor Somebody Bishop, for whom at least one kid per generation is named [I’m my generation’s Bishop – it’s my middle name] was one of Morgan’s raiders. He was captured AND escaped from the Union and BLAH BLAH BLAH) Anyway, I’ll never have much interest in that era, probably because I had to listen to so much about it as a kid. But. I loved the movie Lincoln, and I’m reading Band of Rivals (Team of Rivals? I suck at titles) , the book upon which it was based, right now. First damned “Civil War Era” book I’ve read that doesn’t just eat and drink “Civil War Trivia”.

    Granted, it’s also the first one I’ve CHOSEN to read, rather than having it crammed down my throat by family who probably STILL think the South should have won. So that may make a difference.

  16. That last line is perfect Christie. I felt like I was sitting there in that classroom with you and I felt the frustration right along with you. Excellent as always!

  17. Both of my grandfathers spoke about their service in WWII so much more than my dad ever talks about his time in Vietnam. Also, my grandmother shared many stories of her life as a war bride, but her only comments about her son’s service in Vietnam were to acknowledge she was hospitalized for ulcers.

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