Some Things Can't Be Ignored
My grandfather could show off the shrapnel in his stomach and legs if asked. I must have been about six years old when he lifted his shirt at the request of one of my cousins. Dark, gray shapes of different sizes could be seen under long, bumpy scars on his skin.
It took a long time for me to understand the significance of those scars. While I never got the entire story, I know he was wounded and captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner of war camp.
He didn’t talk about the war. He usually gave a yes or no answer when asked. I think he tried not to think about it. His six-pack of Burgie beer each night may have helped with that.
I was in my early teens when I saw something more unnerving than the sight of his shrapnel. He and I were watching television in the living room of his home one afternoon. My grandmother was outside watering the lawn, and she decided to rinse off the windows while she was at it. When the stream of water hit the living room window, it made a sudden, loud, pounding sound.
My grandfather jumped out of his chair, took a defensive stance, and shouted, “Get down!” His eyes darted around the room. He stood frozen until he realized where the noise was coming from. Then, he paced the room, taking deep breaths. His hands trembled. I think he had forgotten I was there because I startled him when I asked if he was okay. He didn’t answer. Instead, he sat back down and asked me to get him another Burgie.
When I started working on my novel, Machine of War, I thought about my grandfather. The book falls under the mystery-suspense genre and follows the story of a young Marine returning home in 1947 after serving in the Pacific Theater. People respond to his PTSD with odd looks and a “what the hell is wrong with you? The war’s over” attitude. As in my family, things not understood are not discussed. There’s little in the way of help for the main character, so several times, he escapes to a neighborhood bar. When a violent, war-like event happens on the main street of his small town, it rattles him so much that when it’s over, our guy quickly downs a bottle of whiskey and slips into oblivion. But alcohol is just a temporary fix for him, as it was for my grandfather, and as I found later in my life, trying to drown out childhood trauma.
Alzheimer’s disease captured my grandfather at the end of his life; he couldn’t remember his grandchildren, daughters, or wife. I don’t know if the memory of his war years was erased. The shrapnel in his body was buried with him.