Memorial Day

I have avoided any movie portraying our involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan. A hollywood portrayal is simply not something that I expect to be anywhere in the same zip code as the ground truth. But there are two movies that I have on my hard drive, that I was waiting for the right time. They are Restrepo and Memorial Day. This being Memorial Day weekend…and being deployed away from my family….I figured I could take the plunge, after a fair amount of Clynelishe 14 year SMS. Bear with me because I’m drunk as three Irishmen as I write this. It will, I’m sure, take another hour to edit with the bonus of spellcheck.

I watched the movie Memorial Day with James [and John] Cromwell. I’m glad I was alone. I’ve had this movie on my hard drive for quite awhile now, but have avoided watching it for many reasons. It’s ironic to be glad I was alone alone when I finally did, and miserable because I couldn’t turn to my wife when I need her most. I very nearly called her for comfort, but it would be 0330 EST as I write this…and she’s had a rough weekend already. I’ll see her and my babies in few weeks.

This rambling missive will have more meaning to those who have experienced the tragedy of war, this particular movie simply opened a dark door and I’m compelled by emotion to reference those parts that broke me down. I lost my military bearing early on when the grandson and grandfather had the following exchange, after pulling out a footlocker of WWII souvenirs and memorabilia:

Young Kyle Vogel: It’s Memorial Day.

Bud Vogel: You’re damn straight it is.

Young Kyle Vogel: What am I supposed to remember?

What are our children supposed to remember on this day? Our curious, inquisitive but innocent children. How can they know the true meaning of this day of remembrance? I want to forget everything associated with my experiences, but don’t we have to pass on the horrors of war, so that this day has the meaning that it’s owed? What will I tell my daughters if they ask? Will it have any meaning to them? Can I convey my emotions in a way that will make sense to them? Because of their age, I’m glad that I don’t have to worry about that for at least a few years. If there are things that I haven’t even shared with my wife, can I share them with my children, ever? Should the horrible nature of warfare be buried as if in a grave…or do they deserve the possibly cleansing light of day?

The one person who might get it, in my family…was taken in 2010…possibly by the very ship on which he served, the Destroyer USS Metcalf, in WWII. I never asked him if he was scared, or how he dealt with it. I never asked him how he put it behind him and raised a family that would make him proud. Even before I came home, I buried my emotions regarding war and loss. They remain buried today…but they bubble to the surface on occasion. My lovely wife has comforted me on most of those, but we are separated by distance tonight.

In the movie Memorial Day, the grandfather played by James Cromwell writes a letter to Kyle, which I will post the text of here:

Dear Kylie, my old head can’t hold too much anymore but, today, a whole lot came flooding back into it. You might remember this afternoon as just another Saturday at Opa’s farmhouse. It wasn’t. I’ve never liked the word “souvenirs”, but I guess that’s what they are. Shards of memory, shrapnel. You take them to help you remember. What you don’t count on is they don’t let you forget. Pain. Happiness. Friendship. Death. Smells of diesel and dead animals. Eating meals within arm’s length of corpses. Men you laughed with a day before. People wonder if leaders are born or made. All I know is, you can see it in a man’s eyes. Problem is, leaders end up where they’re needed most. And eventually, that’s war. You’re special Kylie. I hope you know that. I always have. But I need you to stay strong. People look to guys like us to make decisions. If you do wear the uniform one day, remember something, when you put it on, you don’t get to choose the war or what happens when you get there. There’s no right or wrong in combat. Here’s only what you did. You do your best, and you try to live with it. Some day they’ll take me off this porch for good. When that happens, what’s left that matters? Photographs, letters, empty clothes? No. It’s the stories behind them, those are what matter. Stories live forever, but only if you tell them. I may sound like I’ve known this a long time. I didn’t know it until today. I just wanted to say thank you for teaching me that. It was one hell of a souvenir. Love, Opa. P.S. Know why I like birds so much? They don’t just talk their stories, they sing them.

I started watching the movie knowing that it would bring up memories that I’d suppressed, I didn’t know that it would leave me missing my Grandpa so very much. When he died, we grandkids each wrote a piece of the eulogy. I’ve posted this before, almost three years ago, but need to do so again:

Bill Steiling was my grandfather, and one could not find a better man to fill those shoes. But as if that weren’t enough…he was much more. He was my role model on how to be a man, a husband and a father. He was the rock of stability during my troubled years of adolescence, and he was the anchor to which I always knew the family was safe during my many years away. He may never have known the impact he had on my life, and I never realized it until much too late.

He taught me how to be honest and unassuming. He taught by example that the greatest rewards in life were service to one’s nation, community and above all, family. He was an infinite wealth of knowledge, but always made you feel like it was you who had come up with the answer to a problem. The spirit of giving and self sacrifice loomed no larger in any other man. Acknowledging that we are all better for it, is an understatement.

Bill Steiling was also Seamen 1st Class aboard a US Navy Destroyer, during some of the most historic battles of the 20th century. Though if you brought that up, he would probably look away bashfully and steer the conversation towards your latest accomplishments. That he comes from “the Greatest Generation” only serves to honor that term, based not merely on his service during war, but in how he raised and shepherded the family sitting here today. He will be missed dearly, but his strengths have been passed to us…….through blood or friendship….and I can think of no greater gift from him. There is also not a greater duty upon us, than to honor his memory than by continuing to pass those gifts down to our families.

Seaman William Henry Steiling

Great Grandpa teaching his Great Granddaughters

I’m a stumbling wreck right now and it has taken me around an hour to type, edit and retype this post for any sort of  clarity…so I’ll leave it here. This Memorial Day, I remember one who made it home from war….and raised a family in the truest spirit of the Greatest Generation.

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4 thoughts on “Memorial Day

  1. My grandfather served in WWII on the U.S.S. Salt Lake City.
    He was the most gentle, faithful man I've ever known, and I miss him dearly.

    My kids know the stories and I do my best to raise them in a way Papaw would be proud of.

    The men and women of The Greatest Generation influenced us in ways they'll never know.

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  2. Thanks for your courage in posting this Jeff. I still strongly hold to the fact that the best and most sufficient way we can honor Grandpa is to honor and stay connected with each other-as family is what he so clearly revered most and consistently taught each of us to hold in high regard as well.
    Love you guys!
    -Brit

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  3. You could of called, the weekend wasn't that bad. I think Susie understands more than we realize. She is the one that cried at the USS Arizona, and the Vietnam Memorial. She understands that these are people who had families and died for freedom. My mom pointed out this weekend that Susie has a special soul, that understands things that others take for granted. We will find ourselves talking with Susie about Iraq when she is older, because she will understand. I wish you were home.

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