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The Lure of a Good War Story

I love listening to veterans talk about their experiences. Usually it’s the ones that don’t like to talk about it that have the most incredible tales. These stories aren’t really the har-har, slap-your-knee, ain’t-it-cool type things you usually get from anecdotes – they’re something different. You, the listener, are getting a glimpse of a place you probably will never go, assuming you’re reasonable lucky and live in a serviceable stable society. War isn’t noble or good or awesome or anything like that – I’m no jingoist – and the stories that come from it aren’t there to entertain. They exist, for me, as a fascinating window into a state of human existence beyond the scope of my experience or understanding. I crave them because I want to hear how regular people react to completely impossible, improbably scenarios. They’re hard things to understand sometimes, or sometimes they’re too easy so long as you don’t ask, but they draw you in anyway; they get you caught in their teeth and won’t let go. They stick with you forever.

Tim O’Brien, in his simply incredible collection of short stories The Things They Carried, has one story called “How to Tell a True War Story” that puts the trouble with war stories best:

You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterwards you ask, “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’re got your answer.

For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.

Is it true?

The answer matters.

You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the ways all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen – and maybe it did, anything’s possible – even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Happeningness is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.

The experience of war is a mess, from what I am given to understand. Tim O’Brien knows this better than most; I am willing to trust his word. He’s right about the question of truth, anyway – truth doesn’t depend on fact and never has. Those who compile their understanding of the world on the basis of fact alone are living half a life, are seeing half the world.

For this Veterans Day, I’ve got two war stories for you. The first is from my Great Uncle, now deceased, who was a tank commander in the US Army during World War 2. He drove a Sherman through Italy and, at one point, experienced 150 hours straight of combat. Straight – no breaks. A week of being shot at, shooting, being scared as hell, and barely sleeping. You don’t believe it, take it up with him. He didn’t talk about it much, but I do have this story:

Bro (my uncle’s name) and his crew never left the tank if they could avoid it. They slept in it, they ate in it, the lived in it – a rolling armored apartment with not much elbow room but lots of armor plating between them and any bullets heading their way. They were driving up through the Italian countryside – I don’t know where they were going or their precise mission, but it was close to the front – when they come upon a German motorcycle leaning against a tree. This was a sweet bike – brand new BMW, still shiny, no apparent damage. Yeah, sure, it’s just a motorcycle, but this is a tank full of teenagers and early twenty-somethings and this is a free BMW motorcycle. The Germans were running for the hills at this point, so they figured it was left behind.

Breaking with all tradition, they decide the bike is too valuable to leave behind for some infantryman or supply douchebag to snag as his own, so they all hop out of the tank and lift the thing up on the back and spend a minute or two tying the thing down. After they get it secure, they get back inside the tank.

The second the hatch closes, the whole tank shudders and the world roars as an enemy artillery shell hits the tree the motorcycle was leaning against. The tank is fine, the guys inside are fine, but the motorcycle was shredded to ribbons. Had they spent another ten seconds outside admiring the thing, they would all have been dead.

That’s it – that’s the story. My Uncle Bro went on to weather the whole war without sustaining injury until the very end, after V-E Day. His tank was being transported via train to where it would be loaded up and taken back to the States. True to form, he was sleeping inside. When the tank fell off the train, he bashed his head open on the metal bulwark inside and had to have a steel plate put in his skull.

What’s that all mean? No idea. Did it happen? Don’t really care. It sucks me in anyway. I think about it all the time – those guys peering out their hatch and through their little view-slits to take a gander and a gleaming BMW and risk their lives on it. I love it, and I know it’s true in all the ways that matter to me.

The other story is something different. Met an old guy at a party once – faint German accent, well dressed, said he was a dentist. Told me this story:

He was a soldier in the German army in World War 2, and he served on the Eastern Front. He was at Stalingrad and he related, with a kind of ghoulish grimace I can’t simulate or understand, how “when the Russians came, they came women first.” He said there were men who wouldn’t shoot the women, but the women had knives and cleavers and axes and clubs, and when they got to you, you died. “So,” he said, “I shot the women.”

One day he was firing his gun (I gathered from the description it was either an MP40 or Sturmgewehr or something) at a human wave coming at him, howling for blood. The air was so cold and the gun was so hot that his hands were numb so, when he heard the sharp crack, he expected to see that his gun had jammed. Instead, the bottom of the gun had been blown off by a stray bullet (or perhaps it was aimed – who knows). It’s path through the gun had taken off the bottom of his right hand – the last two fingers.

At this point in the story, the old man held up his mutilated hand – his evidence, his proof. He then added, “It was good that they shot off my fingers, because I was put on a plane to the rear for medical attention. It was the last plane out before the rest of the army was cut off.”

He showed me that grimace again and chuckled dryly. “Not many others made it out. Nobody I knew, anyway.”

After the war he came to America and spend decades not telling anyone about what he had done during the war. Then, one day, he decided he ought to talk about it. I don’t know if I believe him, but the story stuck with me anyway.

Where am I going with this? I’m not sure, except to say that we ought to remember that the veterans we welcome home bring with them a heavy burden of narrative. How to describe something so alien as war? Not many are equal to the task; still, if they should talk to you, it is the least you can do to listen.

Upon Watching Mary Poppins (again)…

Excerpted from the diary of Mr. George Banks, 17 Cherrytree Lane

June 8th, 1910

I had the most extraordinary encounter today that it would seem prudent to relate it here, despite my objections to anecdotes on principle, as they are by nature frivolous affair and any overindulgence in their practice leads, unerringly, towards moral degradation and an intolerable erosion of one’s natural dignity. Nevertheless, as I say, this particular encounter was noteworthy enough to be recorded for posterity, as I should like to recall it perhaps at some date in the distant future, and do not find it prudent to rely exclusively upon memory. Therefore, I have decided to forego the usual financial narratives that hitherto have occupied these pages in favor of a tale somewhat more dramatic in nature.

I was in to work at precisely eight-oh-two, as per usual. As a manager at the bank, it is occasionally my duty to keep appointments with notable investors who rate somewhat more expert service than can be commonly accomodated by our tellers, as skilled as they may be. It is therefore my habit (as has been recorded herein before) to check these appointments first thing. I saw that I had one, at quarter-past eight, with a Mr. Michael Tibbs. I did not immediately recognize the name, but upon retrieving the account in question, I noticed that the account itself was in the name of one Admiral Arthur Bume (Ret.). This gentleman is my neighbor of some years now at number 15 Cherrytree Lane, and has the peculiar habit of firing off a cannon at various hours of the day to mark the time. I have, on several occasions in the past, complained at this eccentricity, as it has done some quantity of damage to my property in the form of falling vases, broken windows, and a piano that is perpetually out of tune. Up until this time, no complaint has had any effect; the local constabulary has spoken with the Admiral on several occasions and has informed me that the honorable gentlemen refuses, upon any account, to cease his ritual, nor will he consent to dismantling the ridiculous edifice of a naval ship built upon his roof.

As a man who appreciates the service of His Majesty’s Navy, I have never pressed the issue much beyond this. However, at the prospect of having Mr. Tibbs in my office, I thought perhaps I might make a more diplomatic attempt to restore a certain degree of peace to my home and regain the capacity to possess a piano capable of hitting the proper notes in the proper combinations. I realize I do not play, but a man has standards one must maintain in my position, and a properly functioning insturment is one of them. Of course, I digress.

Mr. Tibbs came, much to my surprise, dressed in a fine jacket and waistcoat, a gold pocket watch, and wore a hat every bit as well made as my own. Were it not for his mutton-chop sideburns and swarthy complexion, I would never have recognized the chap. I had rather expected the fawning, simpering idiot in a boatswain’s uniform, a tin signal whistle dangling from his neck. He had a serious expression, a sharp eye, and he shook my hand with the firm grip of a naval officer. “Mr. Banks, I am very pleased to see you, sir. The Admiral sends his thanks.”

“Of course, of course – won’t you sit down?” I offered him a chair, and he took it. We got straight to business. The Admiral has a substantial account through his pension from the navy, in addition to various parcels of land owned by himself in both Britain and India. Mr. Tibbs was seeking to move some funds about from account to account, liquify some assets, and see about securing a small loan. None of this was terribly complex work, and we finished the lion’s share of the effort in a matter of minutes. Soon we found ourselves sipping tea as we waited for the clerks to finish drawing up the papers. This was to be my opportunity.

“I take it, sir, that you live with Admiral Bume?”

Tibbs nodded. “Indeed, sir.”

“Is he your benefactor? Are you some relation?”

Tibbs frowned. “No, sir.”

Noting his frown, I smiled. “My apologies if I pry into private business, sir. It’s just that…”

“No need, Mr. Banks.” Tibbs waved away my apology. “I imagine it is a challenge living next door to the Admiral. You’re bound to be curious.”

I sighed. “Well, surely sir you can see my confusion. You have the look of a gentleman of means and, if the Admiral is neither benefactor or relation, then…”

“Then why would I live with him, eh?” Tibbs stiffened. “Why would I act as a man before the mast, when I retired from Her Majesty’s Navy as a Lieutenant? Why would I swab the deck, wash his windows from a longboat, and load an old cannon for him each hour?”

I shrugged. “I…of course I mean no offense, but…”

Tibbs shook his head. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand, Banks.”

“I should say not. Forgive me, Mr. Tibbs, but he appears, by all accounts, to be quite mad.”

Tibbs’ face darkened like a thundercloud. “I’ll not have you say that of the Admiral.”

“I…” I found myself quite at a loss for words. I could see what, to my mind, seemed to be an irrational storm of anger brewing atop Mr. Tibbs bristling eyebrows. I could only stand and prepare for it to break upon me, as I imagined I had likely deserved for my violation of good manners.

The storm did not break so much as rumble in the distance, echoed behind Tibbs every word. “I joined the navy in ’65. I was fifteen years old, sailing before the mast on Reliant, under the Admiral, then Captain Bume. You never knew him then, sir, so you don’t really know what he was like – a giant of a man, voice like a lion, chest and shoulders broad as two men. Strode the deck like a God, like the sea itself rolled beneath him at his wish, and the wind blew on his command. We were off the coast of Africa, hunting pirates. Thing was that the pirates found us – four ships to our one, outgunned us, faster than us, more men. I don’t mind telling you sir that I was terrified, but there was Bume, fire blazing from his lips sharper and fiercer than anything they were throwing. Still, odds were against us. When the mast came down, it landed on my legs, sir. The pirates were swarming aboard a moment later – hotentots and savages all, kinves in their teeth, come to murder us. Thought I was a dead man – I was, or should have been. Saw my killer in his black eyes, crouched over me, mean little smile on his thin lips, his dirk pointed at my eye.”

Tibbs paused, and I found myself leaning forward, mouth hangning open. “Yes? What happened?”

“Close your mouth, Banks – we are not codfish.”

I snapped it closed. “Mr. Tibbs, go on – the pirate was over you. What happened?”

“Captain Bume struck his head from the his shoulders in one swipe of his saber. A second later he was rolling the mast off of me and fighting pirates at the same time, striking them down left and right. He was like Samson himself, sir, knocking men down like they were bowling pins. Threw me over his shoulder and took the time to slap me in the face and yell ‘Mr Tibbs, I’ll have you awake if you please!’ as we leapt from our ship to the pirates’ vessel. Bume had them beat, and left our crippled ship to sieze theirs, and then used their ship to sink the others with all the tenacity of a bulldog. Gave him the Victoria Cross for that; the Queen herself pinned it to his chest.”

I sat staring, breathless from the tale. “And, so you care for him…”

“The man saved my life, Banks. Saved all our lives, and that wasn’t the last time. I went on to a respectable career, retired in good standing, and then I found the Admiral – alone, drifting into his dotage, a sad little sunken shell of the great man I remembered.” Tibbs fixed me in the eye. “I knew what he needed – he needed a ship, a crew, to feel like a man again. I swore him I’d be that crew – I built that ship up there with these two hands. I’ve lived with him ever since, and while he may not quite know where he is or what’s going on anymore, I’ll be damned if I leave him in some bed somewhere to rot. He gave me a wonderful life; I’ll see to it that he has a wonderful death, his crew at his side, and a cannon shot over the bow as the sun sets.”

“I…I understand.”

Tibbs shook his head and took up his hat. “No, you don’t. But you’re a good sort, Banks, or at least the Admiral seems to think so. Just next time you send a policeman round, remember what I’ve told you about him.”

He left at that, saying he’d come to sign the documents another time. I think the story took a sort of toll on him; I daresay his eyes looked a trifle glassy.

In any event, in light of Admiral Bume’s fine service to the Empire, I am resolved not to complain about his artillery exercises ever again. There are some discomforts one should bear for those who have done the rest of us such honor. It is, I daresay, the British way.