My grandfather used to have a desk in a spare bedroom in the house he shared with my grandmother. I would stay with them some nights if my parents were out of town or if I just wanted a change of scenery for an evening, and that’s the room where I would stay. If I had any homework, I would sit at the desk and pretend to do it. I was usually a little distracted, though. My grandfather had numerous news clippings or old pictures taped to the back frame of the desk, and I would find myself looking at them and wondering about who the people were. Sometimes I would just read the various Charles Schulz cartoons that had been clipped from the paper. There was one picture, though, that was taped above the flat surface of the desk, about eye level once I would sit down.
The picture was taken from the top of a hill, just in front of a long line of soldiers that snaked all the way down that hill until they were almost out of view. If you followed the line from the first soldier to the last one, you would stop at what appears to be a large body of water. The picture itself is actually pretty well known. It was taken on D-Day, right after Allied Forces had made landfall and fought their way through the artillery fire from the hill and secured the beach at Normandy. In the picture, nearly every soldier has their head down or their eyes covered by their helmet. There’s one soldier, though, who must not have heard the photographer give the orders for the soldiers to keep their heads facing the ground. In the picture, he’s looking directly at the camera as it snapped. He’s the only soldier in the picture whose face can be clearly seen. That soldier was my granddad.
The picture itself is quite famous. It was in LIFE Magazine in the 1940s. The World War II Museum in New Orleans used it as a postcard and also had a giant poster made of the photo that hung in the museum. There are many books about World War II that contain that picture. In fact, there’s a book in my school library that I use when I teach a historical fiction short story about D-Day, and that picture is in the very back. My students never believe me when I tell them it’s my granddad. I’m not an expert photographer or connoisseur of photography as art, but I can tell you why I like a certain picture, even though I may not appreciate the full essence of the photograph. And I think I know why this picture became so famous and resonated with so many people.
The context of a picture means a great deal to the picture itself. What’s happening around that still shot in that moment in time is extremely important. The men in that picture had just helped secure the beach at the beginning of one of the most famous wars in American history. They were all in a line heading further inland to try and survive more gunfire and more combat. They were all nameless. They were all foot soldiers who were most likely drafted into that war. None of them are looking up except for one. That picture starts an incredible story, but lets the person who sees it fill in their own blanks. I like to think the people that saw that picture for the first time focused on my granddad and his expression (or lack thereof). Maybe when people saw that picture they asked, “What is that man thinking?” “Where is he going?” “Does he have a family?” “Did he even survive what he was about to encounter?” I never got to view the picture in that context. I already knew how it ended. Every time I would look at it, I would know my granddad was in the next room or outside trimming his roses. It ended up pretty well for him. What he had to go through to get there, though, was a different story.
I still remember bits and pieces from this story. Some of it from what my mom told me, some of it from my mind filling in the blanks, but most of it from the one time my granddad told it. I don’t remember how old I was or what day it was, but I know that I was laying in my grandparents’ living room floor watching television when the conversation started and that the television was quickly turned off. I also know that he only talked about it once. That was it. I know that he was shot in the stomach and crawled into a foxhole and was there for two days, literally, holding his intestines to his side so that they wouldn’t fall out of the hole in his body. He said that on the second day he heard footsteps coming to the foxhole, and he thought it was a German soldier. He thought he was going to die. As the steps got closer, he prepared himself for the worst. It turned out to only be a cow who wandered to the foxhole. It looked at him lying there and then, presumably, moved on to the next pasture. The next day some fellow soldiers found him and rescued him and he was given a Purple Heart for his bravery. That medal was also in the desk where I would do my homework. I would look at it every now and then trying to comprehend what exactly it meant. I still don’t think I understand the gravity of it all.
I remember asking my grandfather if he had killed anyone. I was young when I asked him that . . . maybe nine or ten. His answer was that it was a war and that he wasn’t proud of it. He said he knew he shot some men, but he didn’t know if they died or not. He said one was in a tree with a gun pointing at their group and that he (my granddad) shot him. That was the one story I most remember. I can still visualize the way I thought it happened. I also knew then, as a nine or ten year old, that my grandfather was the most gentle person I knew and that if he had to shoot someone, then he had a reason to do it.
When my granddad and the rest of his victorious peers came home, they were welcomed with open arms. They married and had families and helped start the “baby boomer” generation. There were white picket fences, the beginning of suburbs, and a country that had emerged as a Superpower. Meanwhile, most of Europe and Asia were in ruins because that’s what war does. It is something that maims, destroys, and kills. Even the people who return from those wars physically unscathed relive the horrific scenes they witnessed while away.
My granddad’s generation eventually came to be known as “The Greatest Generation,” and Tom Brokaw made a lot of money writing a book about why he thought that was true. I can remember seeing that book on my uncle’s coffee table one Christmas and wondering when we collectively stopped seeing our veterans as heroes. Brokaw argued that this generation was the greatest because of what the men accomplished overseas during the war and what the women accomplished at home at the same time. He praised the way they built their lives after they returned home. He espoused on the value systems they set in place for their families. This generation had officially become mythologized and set a standard that may have been too high for any other one after them.
In the decades following World War II, the very generation the greatest generation helped create began to challenge many of the ideals that were set in place. They questioned war; they questioned the draft; they questioned the institutions that were set firmly in place in our country. The draft dissolved, and, at times of war, our army became comprised of people who volunteered to be there and were not forced to be there. One could argue, however, that our military’s system of recruitment entices young men and women with promises of a better future compared to the one they have now.
Steve Earle, a musician/activist, is a staunch opponent of capital punishment. He speaks out frequently against the practice and why he believes it’s harmful for our society. Once, in an interview, I heard him address a perspective that I hadn’t thought about in regards to capital punishment. He said that he is very careful to respect the families of the victims against which the original crime was committed. Regardless of his feelings about capital punishment, there is another side to it where real people are involved. I find that my perspective of war is similar to that. Over ten years ago, I became extremely resistant to the idea of war . . . even war that is “justified.” I was fairly vocal about my beliefs, but after I heard the interview with Steve Earle I was open to a new perspective on my view. Regardless of my personal belief about war, there are real people who are fighting (sometimes because it was their only option) those wars and who are bearing the effects of those wars. It’s so easy for people like me to pontificate on what I believe and never have to face the direct consequences of the experience that I oppose. Regardless of your personal views on war, there are people who are coming home from those wars, and their lives are very different from when they left.
Veteran’s Day is a day on the calendar that we sometimes notice because our banks are closed. Other than that, the majority of our town goes about its business. Maybe there’s a ceremony at the courthouse, or maybe someone puts a flag out in their yard, but other than that we’re all doing what we normally do. My daughter’s school has a parade that honors veterans, and other elementary and middle schools do similar things as a way to say “thank you.” I challenge you this year to take that a little deeper. If you know a veteran, check on them. If you know a veteran, listen to their story because I promise it’s something that you’ve probably never experienced in your own life.
When I think back to the one time my granddad spoke about his time in a war, it makes me feel extremely weak. There’s nothing that I’ve ever done in my life that can really compare to the things he witnessed and did during his time in France during the war. There are times that I feel proud of myself for something I accomplished in the gym or in a sporting event, and then I’m reminded about the accomplishments of men like my granddad and I’m a little embarrassed. There was a quiet strength about my grandfather that I envy now. Our society is full of bluster (especially during election season) from men who send people to war but never have to experience it themselves. I know there are many veterans like my granddad who would probably not like to talk about their experience in the war, but I know they would want to feel appreciated for what they did. Take some time this month or next month during the holiday to visit the local VFW one Friday night and see if there aren’t any veterans there who want to share their story.
Gabe Hart is an English and Language Arts teacher at Northeast Middle School. He was born and raised in Jackson, graduating from Jackson Central-Merry in 1997 and Union University in 2001. Gabe enjoys spending time and traveling with his daughter, Jordan, who is eight years old. His hobbies include reading, writing, and playing sports . . . even though he’s getting too old for the last one. Gabe lives in Midtown Jackson and has a desire to see all of Jackson grow together.