Monday, May 28, 2012

Watching the Parade

Every year there are fewer of them in the parade. They ride in convertibles or in vans labeled with the names of assisted living facilities. They do their best to sit tall, to wave. More than eight hundred of them die in the U.S. every day. The youngest are in their eighties. My eyes are always drawn to them, the World War II veterans.  

Watching these old, frail men, I think about my childhood, when the World War I veterans were the old, old men. And it seems incredible to me that those World War I veterans were once the elders of this now rapidly vanishing World War II generation. These men, as we see them today, stooped and slight, are the elders. How could anyone come before these men?

My grandfather, who served in Japan, would have turned ninety-six today, except like most World War II veterans, he didn’t live to see this century. And he never marched in a parade or went to veterans’ reunions or made much of his time in the Army. And it seems incredible to me now, but not once did I ask him about his service in World War II. Not once. It was, I believed, a distant, unimportant part of his life. It was the past.

Today I showed my children his photograph, and I told them that their great-grandfather fought in a war, just like the other veterans in the parade. Maybe my son will remember that once, as a very young boy, he saw World War II veterans. Maybe as an adult my daughter will remember that she marched with them in a Memorial Day Parade long ago.

I think of my grandfather when he was a young, young child like my son, and Civil War veterans were still alive. They were the old, old men. Maybe he once saw them in a parade like this one. Maybe he stood with a flag, saluting his elders.

For years, on and off, I’ve been working on a vast, sprawling historical novel that spans more than four decades and opens during World War II. Part of the book tells the story of an American G.I. fighting in Europe. I have read countless books and seen countless documentaries and films about the war; I know about D-Day and the layout of Omaha, Utah, Juno, Gold, and Sword beaches and the paratroopers at Sainte Mère-Église and the Battle of the Bulge and Christmas in the Ardennes and the liberation of Paris. I know all of this, but still I don’t know enough.

Seeing these delicate, elderly men with their bird bones, their quaking hands held up in greeting, I try to imagine their stories. Seeing these human beings who were once younger than I, who were thrown into a war when they were barely past childhood, I realize how deep into my imagination I must reach, and I wonder if I am up to the task. I wonder if I can do them justice.

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