My father, Patrick Loughran, a gregarious Irishman from County Tyrone, and Chuck Morrison, my taciturn uncle from Albany, N.Y., were united by much more than the fact that they’d married sisters. They were members of Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation”—my father, a SeaBee; my uncle, a Marine. Both veterans of WW II, they had been beaten and battered by the world in precisely the same way. They’d been through the Depression and then the war and had shared in the freedoms and economic booms that followed. They knew the rules. They knew what was expected of them. They knew how to live without doubt or regret.
Or so I thought.
In 1987, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Following the surgery, radiation was necessary to zap any remaining possibility of cancer. Even though Redwood Radiology in Santa Rosa was near my house, my father insisted on driving up from Petaluma to chauffeur me to my appointments. As often as not, my uncle Chuck would accompany us.
It wasn’t only a kindness that they provided for me; it was something for them to do. They were both retired from busy and active careers, and there is a limit to how much weeding, watering and gardening a tract-home-sized piece of earth will endure. And so every Thursday for a few months I sat in the car, more worried about my health than the banter, listening to stories about things that mostly occurred before I was born: the virtues of the Studebaker vs. the Buick; the wild times they used to have in Monterey with my uncle Mario; how America had gone to hell in a hand basket.
Then one day, my father asked Chuck why he never talked about the war. Chuck didn’t answer. He waved away the question and stared out the window.
My father had pictures of himself in the Aleutians and South Pacific; I’d seen pictures of other uncles in uniform. But I don’t recall any pictures or memorabilia of Chuck. He had fought with the Marines in WW II and Korea; I couldn’t tell you where or with what battalion, company or unit. He simply never spoke about it.
On this day, as well, Chuck just shook his head and didn’t answer the question. It was not unusual for Chuck to be quiet. He was the most quietly sociable man I’d ever known. He never missed a party (after all, they were usually at his house) or a joke. His interjections into conversations were always terse, telling, funny and conclusive.
But I’d never before seen him so discomfited as he was by my father’s question, “Why do you never talk about the war?”
My uncle Chuck was a generous and gracious man. A success in business. A loving father. A respected, substantial and beloved cog in a large, extended family. A veteran of probably the last popularly supported and undoubtedly necessary war this country will ever wage. And yet even an interloper from another generation could see that while he had survived that war successfully, he was not unscathed. A portion of his life, years of it, had been ruined to the point that he refused to recall or speak about them.
There are the KIA, the MIA and the wounded, but every war also produces a more restrained casualty. For every reminiscing veteran that Tom Brokaw or Ken Burns interviews, there is another survivor, another hero, another victim whose wartime experience is simply unspeakable. They can’t and don’t talk about it.
There is a generation at war now who will return to have children, attend college, buy houses and live “good” American lives. We can explore the reasons for Gulf War II and the reasons against it. The costs in political clout and world credibility are important and debatable. But we cannot forget that beyond the obvious expense in dollars and lives, as with every war, there is another toll, a mute and tragic carnage.
The tragedy of silent lives forever changed.
Rob Loughran’s novel ‘High Steaks’ won the 2002 New Mystery Award. His collection of short stories ‘What Happens When the World Doesn’t End?’ will be published sometime in 2009. He lives in Windsor.