Puppet laryngitis: On stories, soldiers and writing: Part I

An image of a trench-written letter (Canadian, see this link for source)

Today, as I sat down to prepare my syllabus for the spring semester, the puppets took charge of my laptop – those puppets – they are the perpetrators of procrastination like none other.  I should mention that the puppets have laryngitis this week (to varying degrees) so they cannot talk much – but they can make themselves known nonetheless.  After they basically strong-armed me into posting about the role of childhood fairy-tales in the onset of the presence of the puppets in my life, the moved on to other topics –  but they were quite sly about it.

There was a lot of puppet-hopping and pointing and excited arm waving – and eventually they got me to navigate to the online place they really wanted me to go, namely, Archers of Okçular, the clever blog penned by an English expat living in southwestern Turkey.  Of course the clever joke is that Okçular is a word for archer – just had to mention it.  I adore this blog for many reasons – perhaps primary of which is the fact that I am always surprised by and interested in what Alan Fenn has to say on any given day.  It is never boring and always a fascinating window into the life of an Emiköy.

Today on this blog, there was a wonderful bit of writing in the form of a guest post from blogger Jack Scott (of Perking the Pansies fame, author of the new, best-selling-on-Amazon book Perking the Pansies: Jack and Liam Move to Turkey which you can purchase here). Today, Jack wasn’t talking about his (fascinating) book, rather, he was talking about his growing-up years as a military kid, including a stint in Malaya.  The images of his father, the professional soldier – and his Mum along for the ride – they were, well, enrapturing somehow.  I found myself lulled by the rhythm of the remembrance that Jack has penned.  It got me to thinking about the soldiers in my life, and how they have influenced me vis-a-vis the telling of stories.

So, when my eyes first hit the page that the puppets led me to, never being much of anything besides a peacenik, my eyebrows raised, much to the likely chagrin of my Grandpa the Scot, who fought in the trenches in WWI , my Uncle the Canadian, who fought in the trenches in WWII, my American grandfather who supported the WWII effort as an engineer, stateside at the Navy base near Portsmouth, Rhode Island, my American father who lived in post-war Germany for two years as a medic in a MASH unit during the Korean War – and of course my beloved M., who did his time in the Turkish military and escaped alive despite all odds at one point, with many hysterical stories to tell.  (Actually, he’s right with me on the peacenik front – but in any case – let me get back to the point of the day, stories, and soldiers).

Soldiers, you see, always seem to be the best storytellers.  They have seen a lot – even if not in combat – even if just waiting around in a German barracks for something to happen or driving along a Turkish road near Iskanderun heating up C-rations on the car manifold.  Perhaps it was growing up around all of these soldiers and all of their stories (and I count my adult life with M. as growing up time) that led me to appreciate the power of stories so much.  Now – some of these men never said a word about their experiences – but left trails of stories behind.  Some spoke sparingly of their soldiering days.  Some spoke with bravado about being near soldiers -and some spoke only when showing photos of the surrounds of their stories.  My M., though, he is a raconteur originale when it comes to stories about the Turkish army – but let me leave that generation for another day.

As a young woman, my father and mother read my Glaswegian Grandpa’s letters home from the trenches in France out loud.  My Grandpa’s writing was almost devoid of emotion, I remember thinking, about the horrors he saw there – his friends blown to bits, literally, next to him, and, well, all over him.  My parents gave me a first-hand view into the realities of war as it was waged in person-to-person form.  I have an enduring image of the “luxury” my Grandpa lucked into upon being promoted – his own fox hole in the wet, sticky December mud, and the tin cup in which he heated his tea with a tiny candle even on the most grim of nights.   Raised a teetotaler by his uncle and aunt after he and his brother were orphaned, Grandpa soon took to the power of a good stiff drink in the trenches – following his cuppa with a bit of the tough stuff, whisky, I suppose.  Many years later, he was known for pouring the stiffest of Manhattans to my father, who could rarely make it to the dinner table after politely accepting one of these potent libations.

Although I don’t remember meeting my Grandfather as I was but a wee babe, his stories, never told verbally, live on in writing.  You can read about them in this book, where the life of a Sandhurst-graduated gent during WWII is paralleled to that of my Grandpa, who actually saw the trenches.  On the other hand, my American Grandfather, although not a soldier, had a lot of stories to tell about preparations for an invasion of the eastern coast of the U.S.  As I recall, he was very proud of his service in the form of bridge building an the laying of scaffolds for submarines and the like…but it was my Grandmother’s stories of the era that ring more strongly in my memory – of Grandpa depositing the family in Conway, New Hampshire, far from the potential front, of nights under blackouts in Quincy, MA and of the ration books for food.  She wove sad stories of deprivation that merged seamlessly from the family’s significant challenges in the Great Depression of the 1930s right into the war years of the 1940s.

Now my Uncle, also a combat veteran, did not have much to say about war, much like his father.  I can’t imagine that my uncle didn’t love stories – he was, after all, a scholar of Shakespeare, Ben Johnson and the Cavalier Poets (see his book here).  However, they weren’t often about the war.  The only time I can remember him telling a story was when he explained the great, silvery-white scar across his chest – the result of a shrapnel wound.  My uncle had fought hard to fight as a military man, it turns out – had been turned down by the Americans and the British for some medical reason – but was taken up by the Canadians – much to his thrill and my grandparents’ horror.

But the stories I remember most are from my father, who entertained us with army stories as often as we would hear them.  He often acted out the characters he knew in 1950s Germany on the American bases – shrilling through his teeth the phrase “keep always movin'” when we were too slow (an imitation of his drill sergeant) and “you straight, you straight,” about the African American private who had lost his mind after too much time in solitary confinement for some sort of interracial incident that I can’t remember.  All he could say after his ordeal was that phrase…meaning “you’re ok.”  Dad would say this to us in an effort to make us laugh if we fell and skinned our knee, for example, telling us that we were just fine.  I never put all the bits of that story together until later.  He told of the soldiers he knew who rolled grenades down bars before ducking for cover, of trips through the mountains to get to Paris to see some art – and tying his underwear into chains for the tires in order to make it through a mountain pass in the Alps.  He told of peeling potatoes, local Germans he cared for through their iron lungs – and of the family he befriended in the neighborhood.  The stench of vomit was hanging in the air as he spoke about the transport ship he lived on during the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean – and the splattering of vomitous stuff seemed right with us as he spoke of climbing up ladders to get out onto the deck as people hurled all around him.  We would laugh until we would cry, but we were learning some important lessons about what governments do to their people, I suppose.

As I grew older, Dad would talk about how his dreams of becoming a doctor began to wane as he was working as a medic in Germany – where in addition to being Phlebotomist #1 for the community around the base and constantly getting stuck with Syphilis-infected needles – he also had the job of conducting autopsies on all suicides in the area. I think he had one too many a view of drunken soldiers chopped to bits by the trains they “accidentally” walked in front of and the like.  It all seemed so pointless.  Dad’s stories, when taken together, were really painting a picture of the bleak realities of post-war Germany in that era.  I began to see the power of this form of social history for understanding more about the world around me.

Each of these men seemed to have a unique relationship with their history of soldiering – and I took a slight bit of something from each of them with respect to the power of stories shared – and not shared.  Perhaps this explains my eventual foray into the study of history and anthropology as an undergraduate student – and then to the world of social work – where all work centers around the stories of people framed as “clients”  – and where those stories will go next, with support…

In any case, I raise my glass in honor of the soldiers in my own family, and for the ways that they introduced me to the telling of difficult and funny stories – but real stories, as opposed to the fairy stories of my childhood imagination….

(Tune in tomorrow for Part II of this post, on stories, soldiers and writing)

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11 Responses to Puppet laryngitis: On stories, soldiers and writing: Part I

  1. Jack Scott says:

    What wonderful stories, very human and personal. War is never glorious but the glory of humanity can emerge from the most dreadful of times. There’s a book in this! Thanks for plugging my book yet again. I deeply appreciate it.

  2. Alan says:

    . . the strength of the memories from times of conflict are so sharpened and embedded that they stay vivid just behind the eyes waiting for some inconsequential prompt to do the ’embedded Flash video’ bit. After some event we seem to remember the good bits and morph the bad into funny – a sort of protective mechanism. J and I often spend hours covering stuff when something has provoked some darker memories, especially the ones that leave a deep sense of shame and other black emotions.
    Thanks for the kind words about the blog – it is a real pleasure to give Jack another small audience to promote his talents to – he deserves success for no better reason than he has written a good book.
    Looking forward to tomorrow. TCOEO

  3. Pingback: Puppet laryngitis: On stories, (Turkish) soldiers and writing: Part II | Slowly-by-Slowly

  4. Liz Cameron says:

    I am so glad that you wrote. While I have known that there is a literature of men (mostly) and war – and while I knew of the somewhat haunted look of the soldier men in my life, through writing this post, and now reading your words here (and elsewhere :)) I am getting a clearer vision of how all of this works. May we learn from the dark, may the ocean swells in the dark storms be ridden safely. May we all learn from it. In your honor, I am also adding a Part III. 🙂

  5. Liz Cameron says:

    Thank you, Jack! I am sure there is a book in this! I would love to see a book about your parents!!! My pleasure to plug the book!

  6. Pingback: Puppet laryngitis: On (untold) stories, (student) soldiers and writing: Part III | Slowly-by-Slowly

  7. Pingback: On stories – and on being human | Slowly-by-Slowly

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