In the past few weeks, Krista has been on a genealogy tear: looking up burial sites of great-great-whatevers, learning where they came from and where they went and what they did with their lives.
“Tim!” she exclaimed recently, “Do you know how many kids [fill in here with name of ancestor whose name I don’t remember because I was busy doing something important, like watching a baseball game] and her husband had???”
“Mmmmm? Umm, no, how many?”
“14! Can you imagine? 14! And she lived to be … [she pauses to do the math] … 92! Back in that day and age!”
“Wow,” I say without enthusiasm. “No, I can’t imagine either part of that. Not at all.”
“I can’t imagine having 14 children. And I can’t imagine living until I’m 92 … ESPECIALLY having fathered 14 children. That’s either very impressive or some bum luck. Maybe both.”
As Krista delved further into her forebears’ lives she became interested in finding the graves of those whose burial sites are local. Some were a challenge, owing to the effects of time and weather – their headstones were so eroded they were extremely difficult to read. One, the grave of a great uncle, gave me particular pause on this Memorial Day weekend. He had served in World War I and saw action on the infamous western front. While there, he was the victim (along with tens of thousands of other soldiers on both sides) of mustard gas poisoning. He survived for a few painful years after returning stateside but finally succumbed to its effects in 1925.
As we rode our bikes through the Greenville Cemetery, where he is buried, Krista asked about those in my family who had served in the armed forces.
“Well, dad was in the Navy at the very end of World War II, as you know, and it was during that whole experience that he met my mom. My uncle Harold was in the Air Force, in the early ’60s I guess. Now grandpa Swensen….” I began as I pictured him in my mind, sitting in his easy chair in the living room of the retirement home in Jupiter Island, Florida, that he and granny Swensen purchased when I was a boy. “He was in the Army during World War I. I know it was a horrendous experience because he refused to ever talk to me about it, and I pestered him a few times. He was adamant. ‘Stop asking, Timothy’ he’d say. ‘It’s not interesting, and it’s not glamorous. It was bloody, and it was horrible. End of story. That’s it. Go away.’ Apparently his job was to go ahead of the infantry and cut the Germans’ barbed-wire defenses so our troops could advance. That must have been a really good time,” I added sarcastically, immediately feeling guilty for my insensitivity. “Dad told me that grandpa promised God that if He let him survive he’d chop wood in the forests of Minnesota for the rest of his life without complaining.”
Only a Norwegian would think that offering God a (human) lifetime of whine-free tree-chopping services might somehow constitute an attractive bargain. In any case, I thought often over the past few days about my grandpa Swensen’s experience in war-torn France in 1918-19. He was a 19-year-old boy-man when he was subjected to the singular horrors of battle. He saw limbs and heads blown off and blood pouring like little rivers right before his very eyes. He heard screams and weeping and participated daily in an existential chaos of a sort I cannot imagine. He no doubt worried every conscious second about his survival. When I was 19 I was a sophomore in college. My biggest concern was nailing down a part-time job that would enable me to pay my rent on time, what I was going to have for lunch or acing my abnormal psychology final. Ridiculous.
By luck of timing of birth, I never had to confront directly the monstrous realities of war. I was too young for Vietnam and too old for the wars that followed. I hope my children are as fortunate. On Monday we honored, inadequately, our fallen men and women in the armed forces. It is right that we do so, no matter what we may think of the wisdom or justifiability of the wars themselves. I offer my thanks to all who have served or are currently serving, and to those who have seen battle, I acknowledge the self-evident: Try as I might, I cannot comprehend what you’ve been through.
Timothy Swensen is the author of the column series Virtue and Mischief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.