I am as far removed from the actual events of World War II as one can be.
I am not old enough to have lived through it, have had to fight for it, sacrificed for it or have first hand knowledge of the loss of it.
I learned some things about it when I went through my school years. Most things, I couldn’t possibly understand or connect with at that time.
Eventually I entered a career that took me into people’s homes. Elderly people. Men and women both. Men and women who were both there. Or men and women who were ‘here’ while someone they loved was there. Some were veterans, some were the spouses of veterans, some were parents of veterans, some were parents of those who never returned. Some were siblings of those who went, and returned, didn’t return, or returned as a person that was merely a shell of the person they once knew. Each story different. Each way of dealing with the memory, the loss, the experience, different.
I developed a habit of sitting with these people and seeing them, almost, in sepia. Their faces different, younger, stronger. Their clothing different, from another era. I would see them as they were during the memories they shared.
I never asked for a story because I felt it was each individual’s right to do with their story what they wanted. I respected their silence, and I respected their sharing. Whatever they needed to do with their story I wanted to make sure I understood it was theirs.
I learned from sitting with people in their homes the history I quickly came to respect, and research on my own because of them.
One day I had to go to a man’s house who I had not yet met.
When he let me in he was harsh, direct, angry.
His accent was strong, heavy, as if he had only been ‘here’ a short time.
As we sat down at a table I pulled out my paperwork. I had to ask him questions. Many questions.
I found his demeanor off-putting. I couldn’t figure out why he was so angry. I felt it was very direct and personal towards me. I had introduced myself, told him where I was from and why I was there. I had asked of him what I should call him, not assuming I should use the familiarity of his first name. I honored his request of what to address him by.
I desperately wanted to connect with him. I couldn’t figure out how. He was, to my recollection, the angriest man I had had to speak with in my career to that point.
At one point I said “can I ask where you are from? I love your accent.” He glared at me and said “no you may not, complete your business”. He was so very angry that it took me aback. It threw me off so much so that I stuttered and couldn’t even remember what I was asking. I remember thinking he must think of me as incompetent.
As we sat at the table across from one another his left arm was lying on the table. His left hand not far from my right hand, as I wrote information he supplied. As I glanced up to ask another question my eyes went up from my paper, over the table and his hand to look up at his face. As my eyes scanned that short distance I saw a tattoo on his arm. I had seen this before. But only in pictures. In movies. In books I had read.
It was a tattoo of a series of numbers.
I knew what that was.
And there, at that little table, was the reality I would never be able to grasp.
The reality of war. The reality of human beings treating other human beings as if they do not matter. The reality of human beings going to war to fight the atrocities of inhuman acts.
I was no longer removed from the horror of war. I am not assuming his war experience had anything to do with his anger towards me.
But I could not unsee what I had I seen.
And no matter what his reason for being angry towards me I could not blame him for being angry.
Because I could not unsee what I imagined he had seen.
No matter my imagination it could not compare to his reality.
When I left that home I never saw him again.
But I think of him.
He has been gone for a long time now. And though I do not know his story. I know it matters.
I hope he has found peace.