The Next Page / Veterans' stories: hear them now
World War II veteran Charles Utz was 19 years old when his B-17 was shot down on Christmas Eve during the Battle of the Bulge.
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I had the privilege of standing with Charles Utz next to a World War II vintage B-17 bomber at the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. Charles is 86 years old and lives in Wexford.
In 1944, he was a 19-year-old tail gunner on a B-17 that was shot down on Christmas Eve during the Battle of the Bulge. As he parachuted down from 15,000 feet, he saw his plane explode over the frozen Belgian landscape. German soldiers captured him, stole the three candy bars he had stored in his socks, and detained him in a farmhouse, where a Belgian woman was serenely decorating her Christmas tree, as if oblivious to the colossal battle raging outside.
Thus began an odyssey of marches to various prison camps until the following spring when American forces liberated Stalag 7A, where Charles was finally interned with 80,000 other Allied prisoners. He sailed home and was preparing to ship out to the Pacific when he received news of Japan's surrender.
As Charles told me his story, his eyes kept returning to the trapdoor at the back of the B-17, the one he used to escape his flame-engulfed bomber.
"I heard the emergency alarm ringing and knew I didn't have long. I grabbed hold of the trapdoor handle, but it wouldn't budge. The plane was old and beaten up, not really air worthy, but we were desperate to repulse the German attack at the Bulge, so bomber command ordered us to fly. Now, the escape hatch was stuck. I could see the flames growing around the engines and knew it was just a matter of minutes until they reached the fuel tank. I had my parachute on and was frantically pulling at the red handle. I said to God, 'If You let me out of here, I promise to spend my life serving You and man. ...' "
Charles' voice had trailed off, and his eyes brimmed with tears. "And that's what's always bothered me," he said, almost in a whisper. "I don't know if I've lived up to that promise."
Charles Utz is just one of the more than 1,000 men and women who have attended our Veterans Breakfast Club events since Dan Cavanaugh and I founded the non-profit organization almost three years ago. We hold monthly storytelling breakfasts for World War II and other veterans at each of four locations around Pittsburgh. Our programs have expanded to include outreach sessions, interviews and trips around the country to WWII-related sites and events.
Dan's father was a World War II veteran who, toward the end of his life, opened up to his son about his experiences of war. After volunteering as a bus captain on trips that take veterans to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., he hit upon the simple idea of hosting breakfasts where veterans could gather and share their stories with each other and anyone else who cared to listen.
I attended as a guest speaker and got hooked. We started with World War II veterans, but now veterans of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan regularly join us. It's hard to imagine a more moving sight than an old combat veteran of the Pacific War embracing a wounded Marine home from Iraq.
Dan and I are most gratified by the increasing number of non-veterans who attend our breakfasts -- spouses, children, grandchildren, neighbors, even strangers. Neither Dan nor I is a veteran. We both came of age after the draft ended in 1973. With our generation's turn to an all-volunteer force, the gulf between veterans and non-veterans has grown, to the peril of civic unity.
In 1970, 19 percent of the U.S. population had served in the armed forces. Today, only 9 percent has. It's increasingly hard for non-veterans to understand the hardships and rewards of military service, much less wartime service. It takes acts of concentrated listening to do so. And that's what Dan and I try to provide: forums where veterans and non-veterans can come together around acts of listening. Through these acts, a community has grown.
I hadn't known, before the Veterans Breakfast Club, what a gift listening could be. The impulse to tell one's story, especially toward the end of life, is powerful. I came to understand our meetings, our community of listening, as the last stop of many of these veterans on their Hero's Journey.
One of the most difficult phases of the Hero's Journey, as formulated by mythologist Joseph Campbell and many others, is the Return. In myth, the Hero often refuses to deliver the Grail, to bring back the knowledge or insight he has gained on his adventure. He remains detached and alienated or enters a "deep forgetting," unable to integrate his extraordinary experiences abroad into ordinary life back home. Old age provides the last chance to accomplish this integrative task.
Storytelling is the most powerful and public form of integrating past experience and gifting it to younger generations. Our veterans, I discovered, were eager to tell their stories, stories that for too long lay dormant in a culture unprepared to hear them. Helping them complete their mission became our mission. Dan and I have learned how those on the receiving end of the stories -- mostly enthralled middle-aged listeners like us -- can facilitate the completion of this journey simply by accepting the gift.
Veterans' stories don't generally unfold neatly in one sitting. Most, like Charles Utz's, have an open, searching quality to them whose meaning is revealed haltingly over time, often with struggle.
One vet, intellectually vibrant and still delivering lectures in art history at age 90, has forgotten much about his years as a Marine bomb disposal expert in the Pacific. The Battle of the Bulge similarly wiped out huge swaths of another veteran's memory. Even those with near perfect recall still have dead zones in their stories, places almost sacred and therefore hidden from the world and even themselves. I say "almost hidden" because, after we gain their trust, most of our veterans begin leaving clues to their stories: an image, a sound, even a smell, but most often an anecdote in need of context in order to become a story.
Why are war stories so hard to tell? Part of the answer lies in the way war disrupts our ability to tell the truth. Indeed, catastrophic events like World War II challenge our faith in truth entirely by revealing the weakness of language to express it. Combat survivors are especially vexed by this problem. How many times have we heard a family member say of our father, brother or grandfather, "He never talked about it much"?
That's why Dan and I are so gratified when wives tell us that they attend our breakfasts because it's the only place where they can hear the stories their husbands had never before shared. Adult children often leave our breakfasts with new understandings of their parents' often perilous adventures.
My own daughter, at age 13, happened to attend a breakfast whose theme was alcohol (we usually assign themes to our breakfasts to guide the morning's storytelling). Listening attentively to a couple dozen rollicking tales set in bars, brothels and tattoo parlors, my daughter gained an education whose value and appropriateness I, at first, severely doubted.
Many days later, however, she erased my doubts and warmed my historian's heart with a remarkable comment. "Ever since that breakfast," she said, "I look at older people differently. When I see an elderly person, I now imagine them as young and wonder what they were doing during World War II."
After listening to the stories, it's easy to imagine our Breakfast Club veterans as young. When they tell their stories of a world long gone, they are, in a sense, young again. You can hear it in their voices and their laughter.
Though their experiences are often distant, their memories can be vivid, and their storytelling seems to cause what novelist and World War II veteran Gore Vidal calls one of those "strange slips in time" when the present turns into "a past present where everyone is suddenly what they were and the dead live."
And perhaps, for those of us who never served and have not yet reached old age, that's what's most extraordinary about listening to the stories of those who are now in their 80s and 90s. What to me is the past is still their present. They live, in a sense, as strangers in our world, for their world, the one that shaped them, is gone, as are so many of the people whom they once knew and loved. This is why stories are so important, for through stories people can wake the dead, if only for a moment, while those of us who listen can touch the past and connect with those who are, quite literally, from another time.
I'm 45 years old and fairly comfortable in my present. But in spending so much time listening to so many people in old age, I've come to realize in a visceral way just how soon my present will become someone else's past. In fact, it's happening right now, to all of us, all the time.
At first, I came to our breakfasts because, as a teacher and writer of history, I wanted to gain more knowledge and hear some good war stories. But now what draws me is something more profound, something properly called wisdom -- the kind of perspective, value and feeling that comes only with age and loss.
No one needs to remind our veterans of World War II or any other war of the inevitability of loss. Circumstances forced them to face death and loss at a tragically early age. Because of this, warriors so often become sages, something our first storyteller, Homer, shows us in the Iliad and the Odyssey.
The wisdom of our Veterans Breakfast Club group comes through in the way the stories are told as much as in their content. There's little of the one-upsmanship or need to impress that characterizes youthful discourse. Old age's leveling power reduces social distinctions just as it robs individuals of command and control. The ego is diminished. It's sad, but if you listen closely, it's also beautiful, for it opens up new possibilities for transcendence, love and wisdom.
So, I invite you all to join us at our table and take in the collected wisdom of our veterans. Perhaps as you accompany us on our journey with these stories, you too can learn a bit about how to carry on in your present with courage and hope.
The Veterans Breakfast Club hosts monthly breakfasts in the South Hills, North Hills, Penn Hills and airport areas.
First Published October 30, 2011 12:00 am