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.