Everything is a story. The world, our continent, the country we live in, the city, our street, our home, every single person in our lives has their own path, their own secrets, their own miracles, and their own journey. We've been trained from a very young age to keep these stories to ourselves, out of respect for privacy, not wanting to bother or inconvenience anyone with our perceived silliness or just for the plain fact that not every story is a gripping and thrilling adventure that will keep someone on the edge of their seat. Some of these stories are funny. Some will break your heart. But we have our stories and we learn from them, so it's natural to want to share them with others, even if we're trained into silence.
I've seen with my own children, they want to know your story. Children ask "why" and they ask for the details, because they want to live it too, to grow and learn from it. Some children are better at learning when to ask for the story, others just never are able to stop asking, even when it's not the best time, place or person to ask. I was one of these kids. I would ask the most inappropriate questions, I wanted to hear all the ugly, gory details and mostly, I wanted to know the story by heart so I could tell someone else and share in the feelings I experienced in learning from this person. As I got older, I discovered that I had not only a gift for writing, but that people trusted me with their stories. Not just the superficial ones, the kind you find in pretty little books or magazines; the stories that were a part of who they were, what made them human and what turned them from a cookie-cutter person into a whole being.
Some of these stories are beautiful. A lot of them aren't.
One year when I was about fourteen, I went to Bend Oregon with my mom. While we were there, we went to a family gathering and I found myself looking at some papers and pictures on a table. I overheard my mom and aunt talking to Eva, the wife of my twice great-uncle Claude, about how Claude was doing. She said he was well, he was starting to "talk about it a little" but the nightmares had not stopped yet. I walked up to my mom and asked, "Talk about what?" Eva told me that Great Uncle Claude had been in Europe in World War II and had a hard time when he came home. I had studied the Holocaust a few years earlier and realized I knew very little about the actual military part of the war in Europe, other than the standard Pearl Harbor, evil Nazis and ignorant German people narrative we were taught at school. I'd heard a veteran from the Pacific speak on his experiences but even as a twelve year old, I knew that there was a lot this man was not saying and that the reason was it wasn't for the ears of seventh graders whose parents probably wanted them to sleep that night.
After that day, I started to listen for his story. Several of my family members had gone off to war in the 1940's and the stories began to be muddled and mixed up. I heard of one who was supposed to be in the D-Day landing but wasn't, another who drove for Patton's 3rd Army, another who was in a POW camp in the South Pacific, another who never left the States, someone who was involved in the liberation of a concentration camp, Battle of the Bulge, all the big pieces. Mostly, I heard that Claude didn't want to talk about it, it upset him, don't talk about it.
When I was 19, I went to Germany to be an Au Pair for a family with two beautiful little boys for a year. I was so fortunate that Vanessa, their mother, was willing to speak about how the war changed so much with Germany and the culture. It was 2003, and 9/11 was still very fresh in everyone’s mind, as was an enormous sense of patriotism and love for my country. The idea of having a deep love for your country without being able to show it as openly as I was able to, was striking. In looking around at the people in my community, and especially at the loving, tender, and thoughtful family I had the honor to be a part of, I began to realize that the people I’d learned to vilify, who had seemed so ‘evil,’ were the parents and grandparents of people who were so eager to teach kindness and understanding though example and deeds. Seeing the faces of their ancestors in uniforms then seeing the same features in the little ones I cuddled and adored, I was struck by the knowledge that each time I read about a “Kraut” or a “Jerry,” or “the enemy,” being killed like it was no big deal, I was hearing about the loss of a brother, son, father, husband, or friend. In Germany I learned that people aren’t one thing or another, they’re people, and a lot of times the only difference between “us” and “them,” is where we’re born.
In 2015 during the lunar eclipse, I sat down and started talking to my grandmother during a visit to Portland Oregon. We chatted about how this was an event that people would talk about later, that I might share this with my own grandchildren. She started talking about some of the things from her past, family members, events, all the stories I'd grown up loving. Then she mentioned a picture, which I asked to see, resulting in a box being brought down from a high shelf and photos and memories being pieced out on the living room floor, an intricate quilt of black and white memories. I watched her face as she remembered the people in the pictures, a moment collected from time. She was the last of her family; her parents, sister and brothers were gone.
I sat on her floor, trying to absorb and retain all the images around me, trying to memorize the faces, the clothing, the way they stood, wondering about their laughter, their stories. "Did you ever get to read Claude's story?" My head whipped up towards my grandma who was perched on her chaise, slender hands tightly clasped together resting on her knees as she looked at me and her pictures. "No. I didn't know he'd written it out."
"He never used to talk about it, the war. He drove for Patton's 3rd Army in Europe, he's got some stories. Here, let me get it for you, he sent me a copy last year." She went into the office and came back with a book bound with black plastic comb binding with a drawing on the front and handed it to me. "I read it and your mom's read it. It's really interesting." I put it with my things and went back to her pictures and stories. An hour or so later, I walked back to my room, bounty in hand. I checked on my sleeping children, texted my husband that I was going to try to read a little, I'd call him before I went to bed.
I flipped through the book, looking at the photocopied pictures on the pages, the typewritten words along with what appeared to be a few telegrams transcribed and an account from other soldiers in Claude's battalion. I began with trying to navigate that piece since I figured it would give me a more complete idea of what I was about to read. The language and flow were what I'd expected and I didn't read too deeply into the narrative. Despite the understanding of the time, culture and education reading a "guts and glory" version of what had happened along with referring to the people as "the enemy" and "Krauts" was difficult for me to stomach. I finally got through the piece and moved on to Claude's story.
About four pages into the memoirs I had to stop. Something struck me and I couldn't place my finger on it. Something about this was different. The stories collaborated, the timeline was accurate, but I was reminded of an art teacher who once told us that if we ever want to see our work accurately to hold it in front of a mirror, so we could see what others saw; Claude's story had the feeling of one who saw everything through the mirror while everyone else was looking down at their work. He spoke of his time in England before crossing the channel to France, about how he landed in Normandy on D-Day +30, which meant that he landed on the beach one month after the invasion of Allied forces. How he'd had to waterproof his truck with a broken hand in a cast and how after he landed he had to undo all the work. How the first night he lay by his truck, listening to the gunfire and reflecting on his thoughts when crossing the channel. How he woke up the next morning and realized that he'd been sleeping twenty feet away from a dead German boy, just a year or two younger than he was.
Boy. That was what struck me, his use of the word "boy" or "soldier" or "person" when speaking of the Axis soldiers. Not "enemy" or "Kraut," but without meaning to or making the conscious effort, he'd seen the other side for what they were; people. Just like him. I read on, noticing the details in his words, things that I hadn't seen in other accounts from other soldiers. He noticed things I would have noticed, the mannerisms of people, he didn't glorify anything, told his story for what it was. It was his story, as he saw it, not trying to tell it to look better, not trying to downplay the worst. It was what he saw, his truth. I had to know more.
I read his account twice before I handed it back to my grandmother. She mentioned that he liked to talk on the phone and probably would talk to me a little if I called him, but not to expect anything.
My first call with him was a disaster. I’d listed out question I wanted to ask, read an online account he’d given to a local Band of Brothers, and when I called, I don’t know what I was expecting. Claude answered my questions in his soft, gruff voice, I scribbled answers down, and after a very awkward pause I clumsily thanked him and hung up. Upon later reflection, I realized I was going about it all wrong.
The next time I called, I didn’t ask about the war. I asked him about his home in Bend Oregon, his parents, his brothers and sisters, the Depression, his friends, school, what it was like to live on a farm. Piece by piece, week by week, I began to get an idea of this man’s life. When he was 14, he traded an old bicycle for a Model T Ford, which had plants growing up through the engine. Using parts scavenged from a nearby landfill, he rebuilt it to working condition, allowing his family to have use of a car. He built a tractor in a similar fashion, which made having to harness up horses a thing of the past. He went fishing, hunted squirrels, spoke in awe of his mother’s sewing skills, and how she raised “fryers” and was “rather gruesome” in killing them for sale.
Slowly, he began to talk about the war, the changes he began to see. He spoke of a Bend local who was of Japanese descent, “Nicest fella, hard working, never bothered nobody. One day, he and his family were just gone. Sent off to camps. It was a shame, they never did nothin’ to no one.” He told me about training in Camp Hahn in the California desert, digging holes, deciding he wanted to drive the deuce and a half because he really wasn’t interested in shooting the 90mm Anti-Aircraft guns. He spoke of the friends he made and then began to tell me about the boys who didn’t come home.
At first, the stories were the well-rehersed versions of what he’d written before. After a while, I began to get more and more information, pieces coming together until the whole story lay exposed before me, ugly, traumatic, and heartbreaking. I spoke with him every week, sometimes one hour, other times for three or four, listening to what he had to say.
I went out to see him for the first time in 2016, the year he turned 95. I took photos, recorded our conversations, and made him lunch. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. As time went on, Claude began to share thoughts he had about the world and life as a whole. I called him looking for a history lesson, three years later looking at a pile of notebooks, binders, papers, and the 17+ hours of audio I still have to go through, I know that my life has been forever changed for the best because of what I got to learn from this man.
I learned about kindness. About taking care of your neighbor because they’re your family too. I learned about faith, about love, about hope, about how to pick yourself up and start over when everything around you falls to pieces. I learned about friendship, humor, and most importantly, about family. Claude showed me how to find the beauty in the ugliest of situations, how to see the gifts God has given us, and how to be grateful for them. He taught me how to be a good friend, the power of just being there when someone is sad. He taught me about empathy, about courage, about fear, and about light.
Claude died on Thursday, July 11th, 2019. He was 98 years and five days old. Because of his hearing and my own issues, I hadn’t been able to call him for a year, but I prayed for him every day and think about him more often than I realized until now. He was my great-great-uncle, but he was my friend, and getting to know him the way I did has helped me to be comfortable with my place in my world. I’m an odd duck, I feel out of place a lot, and it’s hard for people to know what to do with me or how to take me. I never felt that way with Claude, he got it, he was an odd one himself. I’m grateful for the gift of my weirdo old guy. I miss him and all I can do now is take a deep breath, share his story as much as I can, and embrace that “I am what I am. Like Popeye, the sailor man.”