Some Heroes Don’t Like to Talk About It

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

As little kids my sister and I enjoyed endlessly harassing my grandfather.  We’d hide his car keys, pickpocket his wallet, and steal his chocolate chip cookies whenever he wasn’t looking.  Our favorite activity was marching around his pink and green living room singing military songs.  We were always trying to get him to tell us stories about his service in the Marines, but he never would.  He’d just sit there in his overstuffed chair, in his mismatched clothes, and laugh at us.

Like so many men of his time, my grandfather was a military man.  Family lore has it that he dropped out of school at age eleven, after his mother died, and that he ran away from home constantly.  He was rejected from the Marine Corps and the Army numerous times for being underage.  Once he was finally old enough, he enlisted in the Marines.  He served as a Drill Instructor prior to World War II, and later fought in the South Pacific.  He met and married my grandmother on leave, between stints in the South Pacific.

All we ever knew about his time in the Marines was that he came home with a bunch of medals.  Prying war stories out of him was impossible.  He’d change the subject or make up a ridiculous tale about flying around on unicorns while shooting at the enemy.  If asked, he’d always insist that his stories were true.  One of his favorite whoppers was that he’d tried to jump out a window on his wedding night.  My grandmother always refuted this, and no one really knows which story is true.

It was at the funeral for another relative that he finally told me a story about life during the war.  Death has a way of making people nostalgic; people become reflective when they think about endings.

I don’t remember how the conversation began, but it was just between my grandfather and I.  He opened his wallet, the same well-worn wallet I had pick-pocketed so many times as a child, and pulled out a piece of newspaper.  It was dark yellow with age.  He unfolded it, and showed me the article, which was titled, “The Most Beautiful Girls of Guam”.  I skimmed it quickly, and my grandfather pointed to one name.

“I knew her,” he said simply.  Her name was Alejandrina, and according to the article she was local and a bank teller.

I remember standing there in my black funeral dress, with its white satin cuffs, looking at the yellow newspaper clipping, written during the mid 1940’s.  I had no idea what to say.  I was only sixteen, but even I knew the time frame wasn’t quite right.  I handed him back the article quietly.  I finally had a story, but I wasn’t brave enough to ask a single question.

Four months later, he died of an embolism.  Like so many things, the article vanished.  I never asked my grandmother what happened to it, and everyone else claims they never saw it, the newspaper clipping that he had saved for fifty years.

I wore the same black dress to his funeral that I wore the day I read the story about the most beautiful girls of Guam.  It’s a lovely dress, but I never wear it.  It reeks of funerals and unanswered questions.  It hangs in the back of my closet, just out of sight, an imperfect memory.


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46 Responses to Some Heroes Don’t Like to Talk About It

  1. Oh…. That is a bit sad… There’s a good side to not knowing everything though. But the feeling of having had a chance and not having taken it sucks a lot :(.

  2. Katie says:

    Powerful words. Very well written.

  3. La La says:

    This is so beautifully written and very touching. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. Carrie Rubin says:

    Some questions we’ll just never have answers for. Frustrating on one hand but I suppose good for the imagination on the other. Lovely piece.

  5. Great post! My grandfather was a WW2 vet, and he didn’t like talking about the war often, or at great length. A coworker of mine has parents who were in the Japanese Internment camps during that same war, and she said they also don’t speak much of it.

    Sometimes things are better left unsaid, but usually only doe the secret keeper.

    • Yeah, my other grandfather was an army cook (non-combat) and would talk about it, but combat is different. And a friend served in Iraq, and he won’t talk about it much either (although he did mention the extreme shortage of food and water). I think most veterans don’t like to talk about it because they think others won’t understand, and they may well be right.

  6. Powerful post with an amazing ending – only I wish you had answers!

  7. this really touched me. i also have so many unanswered questions for my grandfather (and grandmothers) that will never be answered. so much of our history dies when they do. so sad.

  8. outlawmama says:

    The greatest last paragraph I have read in so long. Lovely story…I want to know what’s up with that Girls of Guam article.

    • Me too, but I think it was a local newspaper. Then I was trying to get military records online, but they’re not very easy to navigate. I’m probably better off trying to contact the USMC. (His medals were lost, but there should still be records.)

      Oh, and thanks!

  9. kiki says:

    Real life doesn’t always have resolution. Though I wish you had some here, I appreciate the reality and the mystery of it. This brought back memories of my grandfather as well. Thanks for sharing and I hope you have peace with this, even if no answers!

  10. El Guapo says:

    Vets have earned their right to keep their stories to themselves.
    At the same time, it’s the stories of the average soldiers that usually paint a clearer picture of what goes on.

    I’m sorry you never got to hear the story.

    • I think most vets just think people won’t understand… And they may be right about that. I do wish I had asked him why he kept that article, but he wasn’t struggling with blood clots yet, and he seemed fine.

  11. iasoupmama says:

    Such an interesting story! My grandfathers were WWII vets, too, but both died before I was 8. I often wish I could have a conversation with them about what it was like on the Pacific. My grandmother told me that my grandfather and his ship-mates kept a monkey. How do you do that on a ship? And what was it like for a kid from land-locked Iowa on a ship? So many unanswered questions…

  12. RFL says:

    This was an amazing story. So many unanswered questions from the people who have gone before in my own life. And I agree, that last paragraph was beautiful!

  13. Azara says:

    I wish you had heard the rest of the story – now I’m curious. Great job building the tension in this.

  14. Gina says:

    If only we could resolve all things. That’s the imperfection of our world, our relationships. I wish you would have asked more, known more, but maybe you weren’t meant to. I thoroughly enjoyed this lovely story.

  15. Wow, that was a beautiful post… very moving… thank you for sharing this…

  16. Daniel Nest says:

    Touching post and you have a way with words.

    Although I have a theory – a man who was repeatedly rejected from Marine Corps and then finally went on fantastical adventures that he cannot/will not talk about? Have you considered that your grandpa was Captain America?!

    • Thanks so much.

      And you’re probably right. He probably was Captain America, and just wanted to be left alone for once, protecting his own grandchildren from being attacked by the mobs of people all wanting his autograph…

  17. Unanswered questions… Well told story!

  18. A very heartfelt, well-written post. I loved all the details, and your grandpa sounds like quite a guy.

    My dad was a WWII vet as well. He didn’t like to share much about it either. I guess they want to shelter those they love from the trauma. I, too, wish I knew more about the real story.

    • I know this is going to sound schmaltzy, but he was amazing.

      I think a lot of soldiers either fear judgement OR want to shield their families from trauma, depending on the soldier. My grandfather, for all of his silly antics, was actually a really stoic and quiet man who lived a tragic life in many regards. I edited out a lot of other things that are really worthy of their own separate stories.

      Oh, and I’m glad you liked it!

  19. Vanessa says:

    I guess there will always be questions left behind by loved ones. It sounds as if you had some wonderful times with your grandfather.

    • It’s hard to get his full essence into a 500 word story, but he was wonderful, quiet and intense, but also funny and charming. If nothing else, as I get older, I’m learning to just say what needs to be said. Life is too short.

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  21. Wow. Now I want to go to through the archives of whatever newspaper published the “Most Beautiful Girls of Guam” and get to the bottom of the Alejandrina situation. Beautiful, tense, sad post.

  22. haphillips says:

    I love this blog! Your grandfather is a hero to me and a part of my family!

  23. Oh wow! This did not go where I expected at all. So many questions…

    It’s a great story, even without the answers. Thank you for sharing.

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