It’s Pearl Harbor Day. Or as my late father, Thomas Murray remembered it, it’s the Sunday he learned over the radio, that he wasn’t going to be attending the University of Virginia much longer, and that his happy young life was about to be interrupted, in just about the rudest and stupidest way imaginable.
I’ve been thinking about my dad’s unsentimental World War II recollections lately because of a new book titled Looking for the Good War. Author Elizabeth D. Samet claims misguided nostalgia about World War II expressed in countless movies, books and TV series like “Band of Brothers” has created a warped romance about that war that has led to “three-quarters of a century of misbegotten ones.”
“Her book is therefore a work of unsparing demystification” of the war, The New York Times reviewer wrote—sort of like my father’s own recounting of fighting in Europe. Or as he described it: Waiting in chow lines, driving through mud, hiding under his jeep in a traffic jam as Stukas dropped bombs on the Bridge of Remagen, pissing in his overheating jeep’s radiator, getting chewed out by a dumb sergeant because his jeep got bombed to smithereens, and generally ducking and dodging (and trudging and slogging) his way from Le Havre to Berlin—only to nearly die on an under-loaded, bobbing Liberty ship that almost capsized in a storm on the North Atlantic, on the way home.
Dad wasn’t one of those veterans who never talked about the war. He talked about it a lot to me—especially the aviation part. He became a pilot after the war, and loved WW II planes, and so I loved them too. Somewhere, there’s a photo of my seven-year-old tow-headed self at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, standing in front of a B-24 Liberator bomber named “Strawberry Bitch,” with a big grin on my face, and my fly down.
But on that long car trip and others, Dad told me stories about the war that Stephen Ambrose and Steven Spielberg would have found insufficiently cinematic, or heroic.
He told me how his overwhelming feeling during those years was not about the war, but about the life that the war was keeping him from starting, and the young years of dancing and kissing and finding love and work and life, that it was stealing from him that he’d never get back. His service, the Army infuriatingly declared, was “for the duration,” a phrase he would spit out, seething, even decades later.
He told me about a lot of terrible and stupid men he had to report to and soldier alongside—vulgar baboons whose language and behavior upset him, beginning with the drill sergeant at basic training, shocking the barracks awake by yelling, “Drop your cocks and grab your socks!”
He told me about the confusion he felt, after receiving a year of Army propaganda that had him imagining the Germans as 10-foot-tall green Nazi monsters, when a Focke-Wulf 190 fighter plane that had been strafing his crew crash-landed in a field. They crept up to the plane cautiously, one climbing onto the wing and opening the canopy, to reveal a catatonic 19-year-old pilot who they couldn’t pull out of the plane because he was literally scared stiff. “He was just a boy,” my dad told me in astonishment that he also remembered through the decades. “He was just like me.”
He told me about the one time he discharged his weapon. He and his jeep partner George, his only friend over there, mistook some telecommunications cable blowing in the wind in a dark winter ditch for Germans who they’d been warned were behind enemy lines. They shot the cable all to hell, screwing up some operations the next day. They never spoke of it again, even to each other, and kept the secret up until this very moment.
He told me about the anticlimax of returning home. His older brother Bob met him at the train station in their hometown of Middletown, Ohio. They shook hands. “Tom,” Bob said. “Bob,” Dad said. They went home and Bob showed him how to make a martini. The next morning, he was getting dressed and a woodpecker started in on a tree outside the window. It sounded just like fighter plane 50-calliber bullets knocking into dirt, and Dad found himself face down on the bedroom floor.
Later in life, he felt sorry for the old guys who spent lots of time drinking at the American Legion, because he suspected the war had been “the most exciting thing that ever happened to them.”
Even though his had been “the good war,” my dad always saw war as something old men send young men to fight in—the old men often never knowing anything about what it’s like. After the U.S. invaded Iraq, he broke a five-decade Republican voting record and voted against George W. Bush.
And he always demurred at Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” cheerleading, because he said he was nervous about being introduced that way upon arriving into heaven, and having to slink past a grandstand that included George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Dad was a more of a myth-maker about his own career in advertising, as I learned when I researched a memoir about that, Raised By Mad Men. I discovered down periods, professional enemies and foolish decisions that he hadn’t exactly covered up, but glazed over in recounting what looked like an inexorable rise to the top. He idealized other parts of his life, too, and his children had to try to rub the gold flakes off those, too.
When you have children, you think your job is to give them good advice. But after “don’t touch the stove” and “wear a hat in the winter” and “eat your vegetables,” it seems to me the most useful thing is to be as candid and unsentimental in telling your kids about your own life—and your real inner life—as you can bring yourself to be. To the extent that you can remember and retell your life story honestly (at age-appropriate stages), I think you encourage your children to follow their own instincts best they can—just as you did, yours.
And if they end up joining the Army anyway—or joining the football team, or climbing the corporate ladder—they’ll not do it because you idealized it.
And if they don’t, they won’t think less of themselves, for missing out, or for not living up to a life you never exactly lived up to yourself.
One generation telling the next one the truth: It’s one simple way to make the world wiser.
And it’s harder than it sounds, isn’t it?