It's the most-asked question. Last night, a woman asked it right after the show.
I'll never know for sure. But I've thought about it a lot.
I used to beg my grandfather to tell me about World War Two, but he wasn't talking. I'd learn about the war in school from nuns who had to try to imagine what had happened, yet my grandfather -- someone I'd known my entire life -- was an officer in the war but wouldn't say a word. It didn't make any sense to me why grandpa wouldn't talk.
The woman after the show last night offered an answer to her question, "was it the trauma?"
Yes, I said. I think the trauma was a big part of why he didn't talk.
The woman's father had been in the war and he, too, didn't talk about it. She wasn't even sure where he had served, a fact that made her quite sad.
My grandfather might not have talked about it, but he did write about his experiences. Although even that was strained, as nobody in the family knew what he was doing. He had no plans to publish his writings and didn't tell anyone what he wanted done with them. They sat in my aunt's basement for 20 years after he died. My sister stumbled upon his memoir about ten years ago and made copies for family members. I was shocked with what I read. Shocked, and then obsessed. The obsession led to my one-man show, which has taken me and grandpa's story across the country and to Europe. And when I do the show, I always get asked this question about why he didn't talk.
My grandfather was in combat for eleven months straight, with but a few breaks. My aunt told me a story of a family vacation to Chicago in the 1960s. It was a beautiful summer day and the family was walking along the shore of Lake Michigan right near the Shedd Aquarium. At the time, a small airstrip was next to the aquarium and when a single engine plane made its landing approach my grandfather jumped under a park bench and started yelling at the family, "get down! Get down!" Traumatized? I think so. Why anyone want to talk about something that dark?
Even if you did want to talk about it, how do you have such a conversation? Someone who has been in combat knows that no matter how well they describe it, a person who hasn't been there will never understand. Plus, culturally the WWII generation just didn't say much about such things, any more than women of that era would talk about the details of child birth in mixed company. And many of the WWII veterans I've talked to have said to me things like, "we fought the war so we could live in the peace," and "that was then and this is now." My sense is they didn't want to get stuck reliving the war.
At the same time, many do want to talk about it before they die. I think this was part of my grandfather's impulse to write about his war experience. He wanted someone to know. So he told his typewriter. And his typewriter never asked stupid questions or made eye contact. I still can't believe how close we came to never finding out about his story. In fact, the woman last night after the show pointed out how lucky I am to have his writings. Yes. Lucky indeed.
We also have his film footage, which might even be crazier than discovering his long-forgotten writings. Above is some of what he shot when he and his young family were stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. My mom is the youngest of the three children in the video. Clearly, grandpa liked to document things, even if he didn't talk much about them.
I get to hear a lot of stories after I do the show. Funny stories. Amazing stories. And sometimes horrific, heart-breaking stories. I heard a WWII veteran in my hometown tell of a kamikaze dive that exploded on the deck of his ship, right in front of him. He snapped. I realized later that day that the man who told the story had worked at my high school when I was growing up. None of us at the time had a clue as to the trauma he'd experienced. He didn't talk about it. But he paid one hell of a price and finally later in life received treatment for his trauma.
I don't presume to be an expert on war trauma. But it was interesting last night that the woman asking the question went right to that answer. For my grandfather, I'm pretty sure his trauma was a major factor in his silence. For the veteran I mentioned above who survived the kamikaze attack, he told me as much.
Ultimately, my grandfather did tell me about the war. He did so in a way that was comfortable for him, and has changed my life incredibly.