By Don Nelson
It’s been too long since I visited my father’s gravesite. That’s one of the things Memorial Day is for — the personal acknowledgement of service and sacrifice whose value we can never really measure, but whose impact is powerful and enduring.
For me, the memories don’t have much to do with a stone marker but rather with a man I never came to know well enough while he was alive, and know only slightly more about since his passing.
My dad would be approaching 100 now, but he’s been dead for more than 35 years. I’m older now than he was when a negligent driver ran him over in a crosswalk. George Wallace Nelson (the middle name a tribute to the Irish ancestors we can trace back to the 1700s) was a frail man by then, nearly worn out by a life of hard work, too much alcohol and the residual effects of long-ago combat.
Like many of his generation, he still bore the scars of his experiences in World War II. And like many of his contemporaries who fought on the European and Pacific fronts, he was reluctant to talk about what he saw and experienced.
He brought home some war souvenirs — trinkets, photos, foreign money and the like, which amused us as kids. But only late in his life did we begin to piece together glimpses of his experiences in Burma — the terrible living conditions, the incalculable emotional distance from home for a Nebraska farm boy, the plane crashes he survived.
In those days, when it was over you came home, shed the uniform, went on with your life and tried to forget about the war. Post-traumatic stress syndrome was not generally recognized, nor would it have been something most veterans would have admitted to.
I was always torn between wanting to know more and being afraid of opening old wounds. So I have spent many Memorial Days wondering what I personally was memorializing. It may be as simple as this: he volunteered, he survived, and so here I am, living in a free country and enjoying opportunities that millions like my dad ensured.
A couple of years ago, the last of my dad’s siblings died at age 99. She left some letters that my dad wrote to her when he was in the service, before he had even met my mother.
Reading them was like meeting my father for the first time. You can tell how important it was for him to connect with kin, and how uncertain he felt about what was going on. There’s an enforced cheerfulness that barely conceals his homesickness and downplays his challenges, and some feigned grumpiness about being assigned tasks that he apparently excelled at. But there are also hints of pride about his promotions, his marksmanship rating, his assignment to train other soldiers, his interest in new places he probably never imagined seeing.
Following are a few unedited excerpts.
• September 1942: “Sure glad to hear that the corn is good. But I suppose it will be hard to get help to pick it this fall.”
• March 1943: “Man’s better off in this army if he don’t know anything because just as soon as they find out you know something about anything you just get another job.”
• August 1943: “I suppose your busy thrashing now. Hope get some rain so get a good crop. But most of all wish this war was over with so we could all go back home.”
• December 1943: “Went over to engineering about ten o’clock yesterday. They put me back on as crew chief. I tried to get out of it but didn’t do any good. I don’t want the damn job.”
And a typical closing: “Well guess there isn’t much more to write about so better close this for now.”
I feel the same way.