Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Heads or Tails #53 -- Talk

And so, my fellow Blogospherians, we begin our second year of Heads or Tails, the weekly meme brought to you by Barb, by talking about talk.

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper is no Republican -- but he went out of his way, in his column this morning, to defend John McCain's frequent references to his experience as POW during the Vietnam War: "The man can play the POW card from now until his last breath, and there's not a damn thing wrong with that."

But this essay isn't about politics, it's about talking -- and, in defending Senator McCain's right to allude to his lengthy stay in the Hanoi Hilton, Roeper mentions the "cliche" that there's something "off-putting about veterans telling their tales."

He recounts how, as a high school kid, he would hang out at the home of a buddy whose father had been a POW in World War II. "The dad used to sit in the basement with us and laugh along with the idiocy of 'Hogan's Heroes,'" Roeper writes, "and not once -- not a single time -- did he say a word about his own experience."

It's a poignant vignette. However, I believe Roeper misunderstands the father's silence. He wasn't afraid that his stories would induce 'eye rolling' -- he just didn't have the words to talk about it with people who weren't there. A lot of veterans of that generation closed off that portion of their lives, refusing to visit, in waking hours at least.

Now, as that generation leaves us, many of the survivors are talking about what they saw and felt and endured and overcame in Europe and the Pacific.

But this is not because the survivors are more open or otherwise different from their comrades who have passed from the scene. It is just that they are older now, and the walls they erected to close off these memories have begun to crumble. The filters they imposed on themselves, perhaps not to worry the family, perhaps because they couldn't handle the memories themselves, are wearing out. And so they talk. They can't help it; they are often embarrassed by it -- and we are richer for it.

I had an uncle who was weeks -- days -- away from death from a cancer he'd battled magnificently for several years. But he found the strength to go see "Saving Private Ryan" when it premiered. We knew he'd served in Europe. Only then, though, did we find he came ashore on D-Day + 1.

We didn't learn much else. There wasn't time. "It was very accurate," he said. But he was gone before he could, or would, elaborate.

It isn't just old war stories that are lost when our ancestors go on to their rewards. It's the old family stories, too.

It is said that bloggers talk too much about too little; that there is no aspect of their ordinary lives that are not mined in numbing detail. But, as a reader of history, I can tell you that the private thoughts of observers of events give depth and color to the study of any time or place. In generations past, we had letters and diaries to provide that context. With the widespread use of the telephone, a lot of that color was lost. I can predict with some certainty that future historians will seize upon blogs like yours and mine to find out what real people felt and experienced at the turn of the 21st Century.

So talk nice.


Barb said...

This will show me not to second guess what you will be posting about. I was thinking maybe something to do with the DNC.

Sometimes things are too horrific to put into words. Sometimes there ARE no words to describe the things one has been a witness to (or a part of).

Filmmaker Ken Burns has an excellent series about the Civil War. A large part of it is from letters written to family and such.

You make a good point about historians in the future. God help us all.

Anonymous said...

What a well written post. You have given me much to think about. We can all ramble on at times but sometimes we need to listen to others talk and really hear what they have to say.

Anonymous said...

I always talk to myself inside my head. That helps me a lot!

Read me talking about practising writing!