I took my car in for service today, and since the service station was only a couple of blocks from the National World War II Museum and I've been meaning to go there... I went.
It seemed the fitting thing to do.
I'll have to go back, I only got through the exhibit up to the campaign to retake the Philippines, and I didn't listen to any of the two-minute personal accounts. Still, I found it incredibly moving.
In fact, I spent the entire time holding back tears.
I suppose I don't know too well the men who have touched my life personally who were in those battles. And now I never will. They've all passed on. But I saw them. In every photograph, I saw them. Most especially, I saw Popo, over and over.
My mother's father was a Czech dairy farmer in central Texas. He had two sisters who were nuns and a brother in the priesthood. His accent was sometimes so thick I had a hard time understanding him, but I remember early mornings, before sun-up, helping him in the dairy barn, and I remember riding shotgun or in the back of the pickup, checking the cows.
He died on the land he was born on, and I of course never really thought about it, but it certainly never seemed to me like he'd ever left it in his life. It was his home. Where he belonged. Then one day I saw a photo of him...
In front of the pyramids.
A friend gave me a rosary from Rome, blessed by the Pope, and mom told me that Momo had one, too, that Popo had brought back for her, when he'd been in Italy during the war.
And he came back. Thank God. Or I wouldn't be here.
But seeing the photographs of what those boys went through, seeing them glassy-eyed with exhaustion, or, almost more chilling, seeing them smiling and bright on their way to D-Day, seeing the articles they carried with them or wore, reading their stories... It brought home to me what my Popo lived through, the man who always seemed so simple. I never even thought about it, that he was in the war, until he went through a bad time, and Mom said he'd have flashbacks of the fighting. Of climbing cliffs while the enemy fought to knock him off. I remembered that again and again today, and choked on the pain I will never have to feel.
Because it's a different world now. We don't have the draft and we don't have rationing and we no longer send so many of our men off to war that we have to fill the factories with women. Men and women both can and do choose to be part of the most powerful military in our world, and the vast majority of us can leave the worry and the suffering to them and their families. I'm sure all of us know someone serving, but how real is it for so many of us? How invested are we individually in American military action overseas? How much do we sacrifice, day to day? No one asks us to cut back on our use of gasoline, drive slower to preserve the rubber in our tires, use margarine instead of butter, recycle our used cooking grease.
All that war stuff is the business of the military, and so many of us have the luxury of approving or disapproving without really being touched. With the exception of one September day almost a decade ago, war and its devastation happens... on the news far away. Not here. Not to us.
It's trite to say that freedom doesn't come free. But it's true. Some of us, like my friend Emily, have been paying a price for months, while her husband is in Korea. My friend Nuance and her family have paid an enormous price, but, thank God, not the highest one, with her brother's injury. And me? I... I pay so little. So little.
There's no moral to this story, only my own reflections. Take away from them what you will, or take nothing at all. But today, among the black and white photos and the scratchy recordings of radio broadcasts and the written remarks of those who served from the lowest to the highest ranks, I was sobered, chastened, humbled. I owe SO MUCH, and I may very well never be asked to pay anything back.
Other's have paid and continue to pay that price for me.
They have all of my gratitude and respect.