Perspective: Memorial Day 2008

When I was eight, my grandparents took me on a trip to Hawaii.  They'd always wanted to go, and my eighth birthday gave them the perfect excuse.  We did all manner of touristy things–lounging poolside, watching the surfers, eating fresh tropical fruits and drinking Mai Tai's (them).  One day, we went to the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

This photo is roughly how I remember it.  We took a boat ride out to this strange little lopsided pavilion, then disembarked and listened to a presentation.  There were a bunch of names engraved on one of the walls. 

I was eight.  A rather precociously smart eight, but still I was only eight.  I didn't have the perspective to understand what I was seeing.  When we'd toured the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (Punchbowl National Cemetery), I'd seen acres upon acres of headstones.  Here on this breezy platform, I couldn't get the same awe from the names on this wall. 

I was eight, and I loved my grandparents.  We were having a great time in Hawaii, laughing loud and often.  But here on the Arizona Memorial, I saw my grandfather cry.  I was sad for him, but I couldn't quite understand.

On the boat tour back to Waikiki, my grandfather bought two cassettes of the audio program, one for them and one for me.  Over the years, I listened to it repeatedly, and the announcer's voice always cracked when he talked about the USS Arizona. 

Arizona was hit with eight bombs, one of which exploded in the black powder magazine.  The result was cataclysmic, and Arizona sank right there, killing 1177 sailors, over half of the December 7th, 1941 total. 

The perspective came later.  I lost my grandfather when I was 17, less than nine years after we visited the USS Arizona.  He was laid to rest in The Chattanooga National Cemetery, which was different from Punchbowl, yet very much the same.  In my travels, I've also visited Arlington National Cemetery outside DC, which is just awe-inspiring: the rows and rows and rows of white markers, the guards at the Tomb of the Unknowns, the Eternal Flame at JFK's grave.  One day, I was deep in the Abyss, and I went for a drive, ending up in Bushnell, Florida, home of the Florida National Cemetery.  It was a quiet, peaceful place.  I understood more, but I still lacked the perspective to understand truly what my grandfather was experiencing. 

After 9/11, I moved closer to understanding.  That messed me up in the head.  I was already moving in a not very good direction, and the 9/11 attacks gave me the perfect nudge on to the fast track.  My depression was already bad, and I just stopped even trying not to drink it away.  I was scared, of course, but angry.  I knew people who knew people who died in the World Trade Center.  My cousin was an American Airlines pilot, for God's sake, and I didn't know whether he'd been one of their dead.  I mourned for the 3000+ who'd died that day.

And I think I understood more.  I got how my grandfather must've felt when he went off to Normandy after D-Day.  He didn't storm the beaches.  He was a corpsman in the aftermath; he took care of the thousands of dead and dying and injured.  He saw firsthand the horror war leaves in its wake.  It bled on him.  Its cries haunted his sleep.  He carried it away, and yet it was always replenished.  

I didn't understand exactly, of course–I was experiencing the horrors of 9/11 with a drink beside me as I surfed the Interweb, safe in my home.  He was there, in the mud, blood, and misery.

Like many World War 2 veterans, my grandfather never spoke to me of his experiences.  I read some of his old letters, and other people told me stories.  He did his job, and he tried to put it behind him as best he could.  When he stood on the USS Arizona Memorial, though, he could imagine the horror those men must've felt when the bombs started falling.  He'd carried bodies before; he knew what 1177 of them truly meant.

A few years after 9/11–three years ago next week–I got help.  My life has been much better since then.  One Christmas a couple years ago, I ended up in a VFW hall in Sarasota.  It was 7 AM Christmas morning, and the room was packed with 30 or so people who needed a little insurance to help them survive their days without losing it.  On the wall, there was a large framed photograph that looked like this:

I got my perspective. 

To those who served, thank you.  To those who lost someone in service, my deepest sympathy and thanks. 

To us all, an inscription from the Punchbowl National Cemetery:


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9 Responses to “Perspective: Memorial Day 2008”

  1. I remember the feeling I had at 16 when I stood on that memorial, I knew it was sad but much like you I couldn't understand why. I am touched by this story you've shared and understand it more then you can know. I can't see that second picture with out crying, it's so haunting. thank you.

  2. ((hugs))That last picture……….I'm crying.Moving post, in all ways.My Dad was on a sub-chaser, Omaha Beach — it sank but they all made it home, I think. He didn't talk much about the experience but he wouldn't ever sleep near a wall, in the years I knew him. And he had night terrors for decades. So many wars, broken lives.

  3. <moment of silence>

  4. that is awesome. i am so grateful that i have never had to live in a war torn area… and i've never had to serve in the armed forces in a war. i don't know how all those people went off to war and came back to live normal lives… i mean, that's gotta change you in about 1000 different ways…

  5. Wow Tom. That last picture says so much. I'm sitting here at work with tears. Your post says so much. Thank you for posting it.

  6. Oh, tom. This is so beautiful. I am covered with goosebumps. I live 1/2 mile from a brand new National Cemetery. Great Lakes National Cemetery.I sometimes hear up to 4 21 gun salutes in a day while I am out working in my yard. Every time I send up another "Thank you and bless you" prayer. I often ride my bike over to the entrance to say hi to everyone who is buried there. Cemeteries seem so peaceful to me. Thank you for this post.

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