Stories from the Road: Walking with Ghosts

canstockphoto2357655We visited the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, spending most of the day there. It was the last day of our two week August road trip and I was already done before we hit the front door. After being gobsmacked by the fees, tolls, tickets, taxes and tips that saturate Chicago, I just wanted to get home without having to give up my firstborn. And I’d already reached museum brain glaze after seeing 10 or 20 on the road.

You’d think I’d be delighted, as a parent, by all the kid-friendly interactive displays, but I am usually insanely bored. My daughter enjoys them, but she’s been to places like this so many times, that even her responses are lukewarm. Then we arrived at the submarine exhibit, a combination of video and oral histories, pictures, reconstructions and most of all, a full submarine, located in the lower level of the museum.

As a veteran and history lover with an active imagination, military stories, exhibits and memorials transport me to another time. War is preserved as horrifying and hauntingly beautiful. We don’t want to believe all the devastation and death was for nothing. World history shows us that humans are part of a giant Risk game – war is accepted as inevitable and supposedly winnable.

canstockphoto11787485My daughter asked me “Is this the good guys’ sub or the bad guys’ sub?” Being a conscientious parent means that you have to take a moment. A reflexive answer “the bad guys” is too simple and sometimes wrong. It was a German submarine, a U-505, that had been captured off the coast of western Africa, near Rio de Oro in 1944. In Allied terms, it would be considered an enemy sub, captured by the USS Guadalcanal, Hunter-Killer Task Group 22.3.

I can imagine the frantic efforts of the men as they tried to save themselves from the sinking sub. Pictures show how very young the men were on both sides. Fortunately, in the case of this sub, all but one of the crew were rescued. The sub crew was put in a prisoner of war camp, a camp not covered by the Geneva Convention. The sub capture was to be kept secret.

While their sons worked on Louisiana farms and in logging camps, the families of the POWs were informed by the German navy that their children were dead. One can only imagine what that reunion must have been like, when the last of the POWs was returned home in 1947.

It would be easier to explain why humans kill each other in campaign after campaign if there were clearly demarcated lines between good and bad. They aren’t always obvious when you look into the face of an 18 year old soldier or sailor on either side of the line. I was 17 when I joined the Army and the majority of my fellow recruits were under the age of 21. We were oblivious to what our service could boil down to – killing other soldiers as young and foolish as we. It was near the end of the Cold War and the Soviets, who were eating themselves from within, seemed a shadow of an enemy.

Now there is war after war after war, as our museums fill with uniforms and weapons and walls with engraved names. The Germans have monuments, as do the Russians, as do most modern countries and societies. There are whispers of those who died young, afraid, some calling out for their parents or their buddies. Some who blinked and it went black. Some who lived, but broken in pieces, the ghosts of men and women before war ate them alive. Some who lived and moved on, willing the memories to be adventures they retell with relish.

I have no hope that there will be a “war to end all wars”.  What I do hope is to teach my daughter how to listen for the whispers of women and men and children asking us to take a moment, to understand all the facts, to choose wisely when choosing our battles, especially when they are for others to fight.

I wish I could impart to her that military resources and collateral damage are all euphemisms for people on the ground and in the air and on the seas. As they write letters to their loved ones and sit around and laugh with their buddies, their lives could be over in seconds. I feel the weight of their sacrifice, imagining the pounding of their hearts as they rush to do what they are trained to do.

I wish to teach my child all this – the gray gravity of war. But not this trip – she’s off playing with the interactive periscope display. It allows me a moment for somber reflection, as I stare into the eerie blue lights at the base of the sub. And then, with a sigh, the weight of history slips away from me. A small hand tugs mine to move on to the next exhibit.

How to Pack When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite books was Nellie Bly, Reporter by Nina Brown Baker. It told the true story of Elizabeth Cochrane, a pioneering female journalist who wrote under the pseudonym Nellie Bly. In 1889, she presented the idea to her editors to take a trip around the world, attempting to make Jules Vernes’ Around the World in Eighty Days a reality.

She took with her a sturdy dress made especially for constant wear, a coat, some underwear, a bag of toiletries and required currency. 72 days later, after transportation debacles, storms on the high seas and the purchase of a monkey named McGinty, she completed her journey and was celebrated throughout the nation. She had packed light, but with the idea that she would be traveling in all conditions of weather, on all manner of transportation, and that she would encounter unforeseen circumstances.

I am beginning a journey of my own. Today I decided to leave my job of almost 12 years, submitting a letter of resignation. My end date is a few months out to ensure a smooth transition. It was a difficult decision to make. I like my employers and for a long time, I really liked my job.

I have often described myself in terms of what I have been paid to do: soldier, library manager, program coordinator, administrative assistant, business manager – always excited when I had the next new business card in hand. I have worked all of my adult life, sometimes juggling multiple jobs, doing what I needed to do to support myself. I never saw beyond the next promotion, the next pay raise, or the next new project I would undertake.

I took on other titles along the way: wife, mom, caregiver, volunteer. I stopped thinking beyond the next meal, the next house chore, the next scheduled lesson. My juggling act of work and family started to falter. Balls were dropped. I felt trapped, angry and a tad rebellious.

I started writing again after a long hiatus. I started blogging. I got a tattoo. I began to unravel and it felt like everything was falling away. I let go of perfectionism and being the “good” anything. I stopped telling people I was a business manager. I stopped telling people stories about my kid. I stopped knowing what I was doing.

I know now. I want to pursue a writing career. I don’t know if I have the talent or the discipline to embrace the dream of my five-year-old self. I have fortunate circumstances that allow me to find out. Initially, I was embarrassed that I have a choice, because I was always the poor kid who never stopped wanting. Good fortune doesn’t really register. But it has occurred to me that I should be more ashamed that I would waste such an opportunity.

Without my family and their support, I may have continued to hold on tightly to habitual security. I would have struggled to overcome my apathetic malaise, reapplied my efforts to being a good employee and a “good” everything else, until the next dip in the roller coaster.

I think it’s finally too late, though. I’ve gone off the rails. I hear echoes of the future and like sirens on the rocks, they only call me forward. I have packed lightly for the journey, with faith in myself, trust that everything will be okay, and a little bit of middle aged moxie. I hope I get to where I’m going – before I run out of clean underwear.

She Knows Nothing…But She Should Know Something

My husband and I laughed at the antics of our 8 year old daughter when she discovered “Hogan’s Heroes” on YouTube. Lately, she’s been digging an underground bunker in our backyard, as witnessed by the muddy hand prints on every door knob in our house. She is, like her father, an inventor of sorts and loves all the gadgets and tricks in this TV show. We laughed when she stomped around saying “I know nothing!” in a German accent.  I stopped laughing when she asked me what “Heil Hitler” meant.

I’ve been fairly restrictive about television habits. A few inappropriate shows have slipped through. She loves snuggling up with her dad to watch “Cops” (I cringe as I write this). When she gets caught doing something naughty, I sometimes sing “Bad girl, bad girl, watcha gonna do?”  Supervised television watching leads to less appropriate shows for her, but it also means we’ve had some great conversations about things that don’t happen in everyday life. I’ve rationalized lazy parenting as an educational tool. I have skills.

When she asked me what “Heil Hitler” meant, I was immediately conflicted by what tone the conversation should take. I imagined having to explain to the principal why my daughter was pretending to be a Nazi at recess. She is watching a fictional comedy about a POW camp during WW II – historical events with no context. The question is, how much context do you give an 8 year old? I loved this show growing up, but as an adult, I know too much history to enjoy it anymore. I’ve read WW II history books, seen the concentration camp at Dachau near Munich and visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. Any humor seems much, much too soon.

I haven’t had the classic “watch out for evil strangers” talk with her. I know that evil is often mundane – a family member on the fringe, a quiet neighbor down the street, a helpful teacher or coach. There is no way to tell your child about true evil without giving them nightmares and skewing their view of the world around them. We know that statistically speaking, most people are trying to be decent human beings. I don’t want her to see every stranger as a potential pervert or any gesture of kindness as a threat – that’s my job. Our focus has always been trying to teach her to listen to her own warning system, which gives us a false sense of security. What warning system? Until now, the tense tone in mom’s voice before she starts bellowing is the only kind of “danger” she’s had to deal with. How do you explain Hitler?

As an adult, I’m jaded. In the complicated and frequently re-written tapestry of history, evil comes in all shapes and sizes. Nationality, religion, relationships – these dividers have no relevance when it comes to humans’ ability to be cruel to other humans.  But I also know the heroic stories and the amazing things that humans have done. I have a sense of balance and karma. This is what I must give to my daughter – a balanced view of the world. So, I have cautiously explained that Hitler was a very bad man who led a lot of people to hurt other people.  In her terms, Hitler is Voldemort. The US Military, the French Resistance, Oscar Schindler and others like him – they are all part of Dumbledore’s Army. It feels like a lie, since history is not so easily divided into good and evil, but it’s harder to explain that the world is full of Umbridges and Snapes. People are not always as they appear.

As my daughter matures, I look forward to having progressively grayer conversations. If she learns that not everything can so easily be labelled and divided and set on opposite sides, her critical thinking skills will sharpen and that will make her a better citizen in the world. Until then, I need to stick with the truths that she can understand, but ones that won’t keep her up at night. Tossing and turning over the dangers she’ll face in the world – that’s my job.