"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Sunday, November 11, 2012

State of Mind: Veterans Day, 2012

On this day of observation, it's important to remember this day, 11 November 1918, the end of the worst war the world had ever known, a reminder of what happens when we forget that the enemy is just as human as we are.  In two years, we will face the 100th anniversary of the start of that war, the war to end all wars.  My great-grandfather, Harry Olson, went to serve in this war, but never saw combat.  The only stories I recall are the stories of the Christmas Truce and the incredible work of imagination that Sebastian Barry brings to the fore in his incredible novel, A Long Long Way.  Most recently, my cousin left the service after several tours to Iraq and elsewhere.  I am incredibly grateful to all our veterans, friends and family, my students in the ROTC, and those I do not know.  Thank you.

Understandably, though, war is not exactly a comfortable topic to discuss, the memories of pain and tragedy that aren’t exactly dinner table conversation.  I could count on the fingers of one hand the times that I’ve heard Bill Babine talk about his experiences in Europe, the frostbite he suffered after the Battle of the Bulge, the incident with radio wire that nearly cut off his thumb, which earned him a Purple Heart.  Part of that distance is due to our grandparent-grandchild relationship and the physical distance between Minnesota and California.  As for my grandfather Kermit, who died six years ago now, his stories of being in the Coast Guard are limited to a few anecdotes and what I remember of those sparse times is finite.  I’ll never know any more.  My father flew C-130s during the 1970s, though he never saw combat, but even his stories are mostly limited to stories about food.  I have friends who have seen Iraq, students who have seen Iraq and Afghanistan, and while I want to ask them what they’ve seen—I also feel like I shouldn’t ask.  Like what they’ve seen and experienced is private, something I shouldn’t intrude on.  I think, if they want to talk about it, they’ll bring it up.  But it’s one of those dichotomies that I can’t really come to a conclusion about—I’m worried about these valuable perspectives going untold, but I don’t want to ask about them.  I do, however, want to hear about them.

Six direct generations back, Oke Dahlberg, born in Sweden, fought with the Union Army during the Civil War.  He served with the 11th MN Infantry, E Company.  He was inducted on 24 Aug 1864 and discharged 26 June 1865 at the rank of private.  He was 38 years old, a farmer, married with several children (and more to come after the war).  And it is likely that he spoke no English at all.

My great-great grandmother’s brother Peter Thorsander enlisted in the Army at the age of 24 to serve in the Spanish-American War and he saw combat in the Phillipines.  I'm not sure Peter spoke English either.

My maternal great-grandfather, Harry Olson, married my great-grandmother, Florence, on 1 Sept 1918 and left for war on 5 September 1918.  He never saw combat, as the war had ended before he had finished training.  As a side note, it’s interesting that my great-aunt Harriet was born nine months to the day after their wedding…

My paternal great-grandfather Fred Ponsford immigrated from England to America during the height of the Great War.  I have his enlistment papers in the British Army but why he chose—or was allowed—to immigrate at that time, I don’t know.  But he enlisted immediately in the American Army Air Corps and served as a mechanic, since he couldn’t get an officer’s commission because he wasn’t an American citizen.

My maternal grandfather, Kermit, took his older brother’s place in the WW2 draft. Leonard was the one who was drafted, but Leonard was recently married, so Kermit took his place.  Kermit, during his enlisted time, served in the lighthouse system in California.  Then he became an officer and sailed on the USS Charlottesville to the South Pacific—he was an engineer—and their ship was one responsible for protecting the convoys. I spent quite a bit of time this summer scanning documents, including the records of him presiding over a court martial, which I found really interesting.  When he returned from war after four years, in these exact words, his family thought he’d been “on a four year vacation.”  Right.  War.  A vacation where they ate bread—but only after they’d knocked most of the weevils out of it.  Where they couldn’t go too close to some of the South Pacific battles because of the kamikazes.  Where the KA-Bar knife that I found on a shelf in his office at the Cabin after he died was used for more than decoration.  My grandmother reports that he never used it for its intended function, but some of the matte-black finish of the blade was worn off to keep it sharp.  A vacation, for sure.  But to a farmer, nothing else is considered work. 

After Kermit graduated from the Coast Guard Academy and was commissioned an officer, he spent time in New Orleans.  The Danish had sent the Danmark, a full-rigged sailing ship, to the United States to train sailors and to keep it out of German hands.  Because my grandfather was “such a little guy,” as my grandmother says—and the photographs of him from the time put him about five-six and skinny—he and a friend volunteered to take care of the sails at the top of the masts, fifty or more feet off the water.  I wonder what they talked about up there, the responsibility of tying those knots just right, what would happen if they failed, how many sailor’s lives would be in their hands.  I wonder what he thought of being in a place where his size and intelligence were respected, rather than being on the farm where he was bullied by his father and brother, in a time before “abuse” was more than simply how children were raised.  As far I know, I never heard my grandfather speak an unkind word about his father or brother.  It’s only in reading between the lines that we hear how it really must have been for Kermit to grow up in that house, small and slight, loving music and learning, even as he did his chores without complaining, helping out at the farm without being asked, long after he’d left it.  And so I can understand why my land-raised grandfather might have chosen the military option that was the furthest thing from what he knew, because what he knew as a farmer was not something he wanted to remember.

In one of his rare moments of storytelling—rare in that there was no prompting—my grandfather told me once about being on the edge of a monsoon.  He was up on the bridge at night, sixty feet above the water line and he sees what looks like a fire in the distance.  He calls for another opinion and yes, it’s a fire.  They set their course for the fire and the seas are picking up.  All the crew of the USS Charlottesville is ordered below decks, because the waves that crash over the ship are enough to drown a man.  The fire turns out to be a Japanese fishing boat, too small to be able to survive the monsoon on their craft, sending a distress signal by setting a fire on their boat to attract attention.  With swells getting up to thirty or forty feet, the Charlottesville launches a boat to rescue the crew.  It’s dark.  The wind is sharp enough to whip the skin open.  The sea is hungry.  And yet they go, into swells that are as high as the bridge, sixty feet above the water line.  When the crew is rescued and brought on deck, the captain of the Japanese boat orders his men to lay down on the deck, face down, their hands on their heads.  They are expecting to be executed on the spot.  Instead, the crew of the Charlottesville takes the Japanese belowdecks to feed them.  The fishermen are let off at the first Japanese port they reach.  My mother reports that the account made several newspapers.  Grandpa died in 2006 and with his death, the annual Memorial Day and Veterans Day celebrations in Park Rapids, Minnesota are lacking the only representative they had of the Coast Guard.

My paternal grandfather, Bill, served in the Army in Europe.  He doesn’t tell his stories either.  But I think his job had to do with communications, but I may never know more than the basics.

My father, Chaplain Lt. Colonel Dan Babine, USAFR, Ret., has been a part of the Air Force for all of my life and then some, finally retiring in 2000.  Faced with the Vietnam draft, he chose to enlist and became a navigator on C-130 cargo planes from 1971-1976.  When he married my mother, he switched to the Reserves.  He was attached to Grand Forks AFB for all of my childhood, leaving for his one weekend a month/2-week annual tour.  When he was promoted to Lt. Col, he was transferred to Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio.  My sisters and I learned how to salute properly.  We learned how to identify C-130s, though the rest of the planes are lost on me.  We know about uniforms and BDUs and rank.  We spent some time in the Visiting Officer’s Quarters on some bases when we were traveling.  We learned about all kinds of cool acronyms.  When we were little, he got us our own dog tags with our own names on them.  I’ve still got mine on my key chain.  

There’s a lot I learned about the military from him and a lot that just his commitment has taught me.  I remember hearing about the invasion of Iraq during the first Gulf War when I was about twelve.  And I remember having conversations with my two younger sisters about tying Dad up and hiding him in a closet if he got called up.  It never came to that, but we didn’t want him to go.  As we got older, we had some conversations about the role he played and he never had to tell us the importance of what he was doing and the importance of the military.  We just knew that what needed to be done would be done.  He’d done a lot of training with Critical Incident Stress and how that was valuable and how he could help people, both in and out of the military.  He talked about the military wanting its most experienced chaplains where they counted and how he was willing to go wherever they would send him.  We didn’t like it, but we understood.  We especially didn’t like that chaplains couldn’t carry weapons, save a pocketknife.  We didn’t think that his little camouflage Bible would be much protection at all.

Joan Didion famously wrote that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”  Tim O’Brien wrote that “Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are.  Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”  My grandfather’s war stories aren’t like O’Brien’s war stories and they aren’t like my paternal grandfather’s war stories, which I also haven’t heard many of.  Kermit’s war stories were not for the telling.  Kermit’s war stories are the stories he could barely bring himself to tell, the ones that weren’t in search of meaning and understanding, the ones that were simply about something happening.  He never editorialized, never speculated about what other people might have been thinking or feeling.  His stories were things he could understand, as far as he could understand them.  His stories were about finding something solid as the land he left in southwestern Minnesota, the land he understood but people he didn’t, his way of finding what mattered and staying there.

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