Posted by: philipmartin | October 3, 2010

What Did You Do During the War, Dad?

[This is a post by Nancy Martin, co-author with her father-in-law of the book, Patton’s Lucky Scout.)

“What did you do during the war, Dad?”

In my father-in-law’s case, the war was World War II. That question eventually led to our book, Patton’s Lucky Scout.

But first and foremost, it led to over 100 little stories.

Each of those little stories was a little snapshot, a small glimpse of what Frank Wayne Martin experienced as a scout for General Patton’s Third Army. In Wayne’s case, after a little prompting from his family, he started to write down his recollections. Most of his stories only took two or three pages; a few were just a single sheet.

How about the veteran in your family? Have you asked your own version of that simple question: “So, what did you do in the war?” You might be surprised at how showing some interest might pry loose a story or two. If nothing else, it is a way to show respect for the variety of experiences, good and bad, extraordinary and everyday, of our men and women who served our country.

Some veterans get more talkative as they get older. Some vets are just waiting for someone to ask. For others, it never occurred to them that their story might be interesting.

Clearly, for many vets, their war memories are something they don’t want to revisit. And that is something to be respected. But you won’t know until you ask.

You may get a nice simple story. But be prepared to follow the convoluted twists and turns of free association, as memories long dormant start spilling out. It’s how our memory works. It’s a gathering of many precious moments . . . some unforgettable, some stored away without even realizing what we remember (until we’re asked . . . and start to recollect).

In my experience, as I followed the various threads, the little stories wove an amazing fabric of a colorful cloth, describing my father-in-law and his role in a great historic event, the march of Patton’s Third Army across Europe, ultimately resulting in victory.

My own dad was one of the reticent ones, but we still have a few snippets of stories that I treasure. They help give my brother and me a perspective, an extra dimension to the man we knew.

Some vets are already gone. In September, 2009, it was estimated that 2,272,000 of the more than 16 million soldiers that served in WWII were still alive.

However, the estimates noted that 850 or more die every day. So the number alive today is likely under two million. And shrinking quickly.

In a post tomorrow, I’ll begin a list of questions to ask your dad, or grandfather, or uncle. (Of course, for some of you, the vet in your family might be one of the women who served in the U.S. armed forces.)

Here’s a first tip: You may hear a story you have heard a thousand times before. Keep your ears open . . . even when favorite stories are told. You often will hear a new little nugget, embedded in an old familiar tale, that may be the priceless beginning of your next question, leading to another story.

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