Sunday, September 15, 2013
REMEMBERING THE REMEMBERERS, by Wendy Hoke
With the events surrounding Syria since Assad used chemical weapons against his citizens, my thoughts have turned to the possibility/probability that any response or non-response the US makes may be the start of WWIII. I believe many other Americans are wondering the same. I may not have worried so much in the past, but I look at Mack’s face and I ponder his future. Children are game changers. Will his world be peaceful or obliterated?
These thoughts brought to mind a short story I wrote about 10 years ago.
(No part of this story has been fictionalized.)
Remembering the Remembrance
One morning in January around 5:00 a.m., I awoke to a loud banging on my front door. I opened the door to see a soft fog washing over the neighborhood in the morning light. Bill was the caller. He was 81 at the time, and his wife, Ginny, was 82. We lived next door to each other in Point Loma, a hilly section overlooking downtown San Diego. Despite his age, Bill remained physically active with walking, hiking, and lifting weights. He was dressed in camp pants and a hiking vest, and he seemed completely unaware of the hour and my pajamas.
"Hey, Wendy," Bill said, "The annual ski trip to Mammoth is next week. I know you love to ski. Why don't you come along?"
Bill and his two WWII buddies had been skiing at Mammoth Mountain in the Eastern Sierras for 40 years. He became very excited. "You know, at Mammoth anyone over 80 years old is entitled to free lift tickets. We share a condo, and there is an extra bedroom if you want to come along."
This made an alluring offer for an inexpensive ski trip. But what an odd group we would make, three WWII vets in their mid 80's, and one woman in her late 30's. I considered the emotional upheaval I was experiencing at the time. I had left a miserable job, and I was having difficulty letting go of the past. An escape to the Sierras presented an irresistible diversion. I took the offer despite appearances.
"O.K.,” Bill said, "we leave Sunday. By the way, we always cook a large turkey when we arrive. Then we eat that for lunch and dinner all week. Since you're a vegetarian, you will need to bring your own food."
We arrived in Mammoth around 2:00 p.m. Sunday afternoon, checked in, and unloaded the van. Immediately, the turkey went into the oven. I made a fragrant minestrone soup, but the scent of roasting turkey overpowered the aroma.
I set the table, and ladled soup into the bowls. Bill carved the turkey. We sat down to eat and quickly the men fell silent and did not look up as they ate.
When the meal was just about done, Jim got up for seconds. "There's more turkey," Bill said. But Jim took seconds of the soup. As Jim sat down, John looked up and said, "Remember Peleliu?"
"And the wolf packs?" Bill said. "There were Germans all around us...wolf packs surrounding us. We knew they were there....couldn't hear them! Submarines all around. They were there...couldn't hear them, but we could feel them."
"Not until radar," John said. "short wave...undetectable, the escort carriers...the high frequency direction finders. And hedgehogs."
They spoke in phrases, nodding in agreement. I heard the words "Normandy," "88's," "Utah Beach," "U-boats," "Doenitz." The conversation continued on as if I were no longer present. More accurately, they were no longer present at the dinner table in a condo in Mammoth. It was sixty years ago, and they were back in the war.
I listened without interrupting. I enjoyed the history lesson, and I took it as an opportunity to hear firsthand from those who were there.
The next day we were up early, dressed, and at the lifts before the mountain opened for skiing. It was a clear day, about 50 degrees, and the conditions were perfect. Bill and Jim went off to the black diamond runs. I went with John to ski the intermediate runs. Since it was Monday, the mountain was nearly empty of people. With no lines at the lifts, we made countless runs...up to the summit, ski down to the lifts, over and over.
That night for dinner, I made vegetable lasagna, and served some to all. Bill carved more meat from the day old turkey. The men fell silent with their heads down as they ate their dinner. When Jim got up for seconds, Bill said, "There's more turkey." But Jim took more of the lasagna. As he sat down, John looked up and said, "Remember Peleliu?"
"And the wolf packs?" Bill said. "There were Germans all around us...wolf packs, surrounding us. We knew they were there...couldn't hear them! Submarines all around. They were there...couldn't hear them, but we could feel them."
"Not until radar," John said. short wave...undetectable, the escort carriers...the high frequency direction finders. And hedgehogs."
A sense of déjà vu swept over me. This was the same conversation as the night before verbatim! Again the men were reliving the war. They knew their cues instinctively, who would say what and when. This scene repeated itself each night for the entire week. Jim went for second helpings, and John began with "remember Peleliu?"
These men spoke quietly showing little emotion. However as I listened closely, I began to sense the dread and speechless terror they had felt while surrounded by a silent, invisible evil, the German wolf packs. I began to sense the triggers that dragged them back to war each night. But I also sensed that in these rituals established over the decades, they had found acknowledgement and confirmation that their fears had not been exaggerated, reassurances only they could give to each other. The evil had been real.
They gather each year for a remembrance of their experience under the guise of a ski trip. They will not have many more trips. I felt honored by the invitation; in forty years this was the only time they let in an outsider. Now each year on my ski trips to Mammoth, I will remember the remembrances.