November 11th is Veteran’s Day, a day to remember and lay honor to all those men and women who have fought for this country. It is celebrated on November 11th because that day in 1918 marked the end of World War I: “The war to end all wars.” But of course, it didn’t end all wars. It was made a national holiday in 1954 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It became a day to honor American veterans of all wars. For many years, I’d thank my father for his service in World War II, but I truly did not know what he had sacrificed until he wrote a memoir, The Timid Marine: Surrender to Combat Fatigue, in 2005 when he was seventy-nine-years-old. Only then, did I start to put the traumatic pieces together and how his trauma became my trauma, not on the beaches of Okinawa, but in the suburbs of New Jersey. When my father was a soldier, PTSD was not a known disorder, and there was no help or treatment for World War II veterans.
In 2013, journalist Dale Maharidge wrote a book about his father’s experience in World War II called Bringing Mulligan Home: The Long Search for a Lost Marine. In preparation for writing his book, he came across my father’s self-published memoir, and they became fast friends culminating with a heart-felt acknowledgement to my father at the beginning of Dale’s book. In writing about his father, Dale was able to come to terms with his own childhood upheaval and start to understand and explain the true cost of war.
As I read my father’s memoir, I realized how much his war experiences had infiltrated our family life. Some of my most traumatic childhood memories were directly connected to his wartime trauma. I turned to poetry to make sense of it all. I took pieces from my father’s memoir and turned them into poetry. Then I intertwined his poems with my own creating a trail of lived experiences, trying to come back from war not broken, but whole and blossoming.
So, to all our Veterans of this Veteran’s Day 2021 – Thank you for your service and sacrifice. You have paid dearly, as have your families.
War Victims For Two Voices: Father and Daughter Marine Boot Camp – Parris Island, South Carolina 1942 All the days of summer That year of our young lives Were spent in a continuous monotony Of drills and abuses and marches Learning the ways of the Corps, Learning to be heroes. Little by little at his leisure At his best opportunity At his chosen place and time The Drill Instructor would strike out To drive home another lesson He was trained to do. “Today,” he shouted, “You will learn One of the most important lessons Of being a Marine.” Even many years after the war, Whatever object that happened to be in my father’s hands could possibly become a weapon: A coffee cup, a broom handle, a basketball, “Don’t you know how to do anything?” He snapped as he lobbed the ball at my head. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I tried to duck, but he was too close to me. “Stop crying, damn girl, have to toughen you up,” And he kept hitting me with that basketball Bounce….bounce… bounce… bounce… “Can’t you do anything right?” My head was ringing, tears were flowing I tried to get away from him, But he followed me wherever I went. “Don’t walk away from me!” he screamed, And kept bouncing that damn ball on my head, “You’re nothing,” he barked, “You’ll always be nothing.” I finally ran into the house and up into my room, But his words seeped in and for years I believed him. A Marine near me had a White Owl cigar Still in good condition After the long voyage, And I was in the mood To play a game with him – Give you five dollars for that cigar, He looked at me like I was nuts, I realized that the five dollars would not be of any use, We would all be killed anyway. It was the last money I had on me. We made a deal – I smoked two puffs of that very bad cigar Before throwing it away, For my five bucks I got a memory that returned every time I smoke a cigar in later years, But I never bought one for five dollars again. On a clear blue Father’s Day, I proudly gave my father A glass container of White Owls Because I knew he liked cigars, I went all the way to the mall With my friends to buy it for him, I was eleven-years-old. I remember it had a bright red bow, I thought he would be so happy That his little girl chose a present For him so carefully. When my father unwrapped the container And saw the cigars, His face contorted from happy to rage. He took my beautiful glass container With the shiny red bow And threw it against the wall, Screaming something about How I should have known That White Owls were cheap, bad cigars But how was I to know? I was an eleven-year-old girl Getting a pretty present for her dad, What did I know about cigars? The glass splintered everywhere And I ran out of the house crying, Vowing never to speak to him again. Later, he apologized, said he was sorry But I didn’t speak to him for a week And I didn’t buy him another present for years, I promised myself that I would never forget. There seemed to be a shortage of everything Sometimes we did not have a complete uniform Needing a hat or pair of boots or jacket The only thing you could do was requisition Something for yourself if you wanted it Requisitioning was a Marine translation for stealing The Marines were great for requisitioning. Unofficially the Corps condoned it without argument If you needed something, you did not have You were expected to supply yourself the best you could Requisitioning was easy to do And I had no problem with it I had trained during The Depression I’d stolen food from stores, Pilfered clotheslines at night to get a shirt to wear to school Stole coins from various areas to attend a movie or buy an ice cream soda. Several years ago, my mother had a heart attack, She had to have quadruple bypass, Hospitalized for many months, But we were sure that she would survive, Just as she had survived colon cancer three years before, You see, my mother was a fighter. When we’d visit the hospital, my father would show us All the things he requisitioned: Basins, pillows, extra blankets, boxes of tissues - He stored them in the closet next to my mother’s bed - A Marine is always prepared – That was the way he took care of my mother Those awful winter months, Sitting next to her bed watching television, Stalking the hallways always on the lookout For something she might need, Everyone was his enemy: He sniped at my sister, my nieces, My aunt, my husband, and me, as usual. No one could do anything right, He was the only one who cared, He was the only one who could comfort, My father was my mother’s fortress And in the spring she got well, Returned home with a new heart. I shot an old horse in the head As it was lowered to eat some grass I was only a foot from the horse’s head And placed the carbine muzzle Close to the head between the eyes, Hoping to hit the brain. The horse gave a shriek And lifted its head high in the air Before it fell to the ground twitching And jerking in spasms of pain and ensuing death. I shot the horse out of boredom And the need to see something die. The horse did not die instantly like in the movies. I was agitated seeing the horse bleed from head and mouth Twitching and jerking all over its body. I wanted to end the experience. I quickly shot the horse in the head several more times To stop the quivering and pain, “What the hell are you doing you crazy bastard?” Several of the Marines asked. “It was an old horse.” I said. It was my only explanation And no one pursued another explanation. I have to find a way to release my rage, Set it upon its own course away from me - Good-bye Rage, you childish thing That cripples my life, I can no longer respond in anger For all things lost. Be off with you down that dark forest path, Howl to the moon and be gone forever, You are of no use to me, I must take a new path, The one in the mist, The one lined with fear, That path – that as the day breaks Burns off the mist And fear becomes flowers. Okinawa, April 1945, I looked into the dirt Saw a yellow flower That looked familiar, a buttercup. It had pushed itself up out of the earth In this remote rice field. It was so incongruous growing there, So far away from my childhood meadows where I sued to pick them, I turned my head without lifting it so that I could see the sky above me, Which was just perfect white clouds and pale blue expanses and there I was, getting ready to resume running to save my life, I held a handful of the dirt to my nose to smell it, It looked dark and alive with organisms. This is what men die for, Earth - dirt - inches of it, and mile of it Stretches of earth in the form of countries all over the world had been fought over and I visualized the various armies and hoards that fought over the land with various weapons from stones to aircraft. I saw all the small flowers had been pushing themselves up out of the black earth here the sunlight caught them and transformed them into gold. Now around me the enemy bullets were kicking up bits of stone and earth. They had located us where we fell. Men were crying and shouting all around in a mass confusion Voices more frightened than my heart that pounded in my chest. Dandelion Your golden head rises Out of the rusty rubble, Just another weed – You push your way out Between cracks in the sidewalk Among rocks, bricks, bits of broken glass, You grow strong – Impervious to your surroundings Your leaves, jagged toothed Spread green along the old gray ground, You are not discouraged – You’ve never depended Upon rain or fertilizer, You provide your own sunlight.