Veterans Day – Why We Need War Stories

Veterans Day , 1968, was the last time I saw my beloved husband, Captain David R. Crocker, Jr. He left Connecticut for the war in Vietnam from the tiny Groton Municipal Airport in Groton, Connecticut at 7:00am on November 11, 1968.   The first time I met the survivors of Alpha Company of the 2/22 Infantry in 2006, I was scared. It had been almost four decades since my husband died in a booby-trapped bunker on May 17, 1969. I had never heard a first- person account of precisely what happened, and I still wasn’t sure I was ready to hear the stories. But they wanted to meet me and members of Dave’s family. We had learned from their tributes on the Vietnam Virtual Wall that they cherished his memory  so I attended a reunion of the regiment in Omaha.   What was I afraid of? Perhaps simply the peeling back of the protective layer of years since I was informed of the tragedy on that warm spring day in 1969. Back then, I had avoided the nightly newscasts by Walter Cronkite. I couldn’t bear to see bloodied young men carried out of battle. Before the worst happened, superstition about what might protect my beloved governed every move I made. At age twenty-two I still believed in childish charms. “Don’t step on a crack. It will break your mother’s back.”   For many years that followed, war stories repelled me.   Real war stories are hard for both the teller and the listener.  Veterans and other survivors of war may hold back their untold stories for decades. Despite their courage on the battlefield, to describe that experience requires a reach back down into gut-wrenching […]

Is it Time to Write Your Story?

How many times have family or friends listened to you tell one of your stories and said, “you should write a book!” If you are a veteran, on active-duty or retired, or a member of a military family, there is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping you learn the writing skills to do exactly that. The Military Writers Society of America (MWSA) offers a unique (and free!) one-day workshop each year at the start of their annual conference called “Write Your Story.” This year the workshop will be held in New London, CT on Sept. 16, and followed by the conference from Sept. 17-19, 2021 Many writers have gotten their start working with the prize-winning authors who volunteer to teach these workshops and share their knowledge about storytelling, character development, how to write a scene, short story, memoir, poetry, and many other aspects of writing. How did such an opportunity to learn to write get started? In 1998, Vietnam veteran and author Bill McDonald built a website presence, titled “The Vietnam Experience,” for his old Army unit that he served with in the Vietnam War (the 128th Assault Helicopter Company). Like many soldiers, it had taken years for Bill to speak, and write, about what he had experienced in the midst of battle back in the 1960s. That original website began with some of the poetry and prose he had composed while serving in South Vietnam. Starting with his own war memories, he eventually expanded to include dozens of his comrades who had also begun to write about their experiences. The website took off. During the first six months, online traffic increased to over 17,000 […]

National Vietnam Veterans Day – March 29, 2021

Someone, I tell you will remember us. We are oppressed by fears of oblivion. Sappho (6 cent. B.C.)  

My German Winter: Notes on Surviving Uncertainty

When our plane touched down at Rhine-Main Air Base near the city of Frankfurt, Germany, the first thing I noticed outside my window seat was a multitude of vertical cranes, moving in every direction, lifting and swinging massive steel beams and lumber. It was November, 1966 and Germany was still rebuilding its heavily bombed cities after WWII. My husband, Army 2nd Lieutenant David R. Crocker, Jr., and I were headed for his first duty station in the mountain village of Wildflecken, “the little wild place.” The next four hours of travel by car would take us through thick pine forests over roads packed with snow to a remote training area within three miles of the 5K zone – the border of what was then East Germany. The cranes had not arrived in Wildflecken, yet. It had been a German Army Post in WWII and a stopping place for trains transporting displaced people from Poland during the war. This long-ago adventure in Germany came to mind as I did a mental inventory of the uncertain times in my life and how I lived them relative to how I am experiencing the uncertainties of the pandemic today. Back then in 1966, at age nineteen, and newly married, the longest I had ever been away from my family of origin was a week at Camp Aldersgate for Methodist youth in nearby Rhode Island when I was fourteen. When I departed for Germany, I didn’t realize, or perhaps I couldn’t comprehend, that the extent of my communication with my family would be limited to snail mail and a yearly […]

What is Memoir?

Beginning a memoir project is like being an explorer of unexcavated territory. You are an anthropologist, a psychologist and a skydiver all at once without leaving your writing table as you take an indepth look at an event (or series of events) that shaped your life. It is not an entire life as autobiography is and the journey itself is your challenge, a way to stretch yourself and grow as a writer.          A memoir is a story that is true. It can consist of looking back at a single summer, or the span of a lifetime. It is some aspect of life, some theme about which you want to reflect so it becomes a process of unearthing memories and then turning them over and over like a stone embedded with fossils. The more we look the more we see.           There are two basic ingredients in a strong memoir. The first is honesty. The memoirist makes a commitment to tell the emotional truth. Sometimes when the writing is not coming easily, it may be because we’re avoiding what needs to be written. It’s not about baring secrets – it’s simply telling the emotional truth about what you’ve chosen to write about. You must, as Hemingway suggested, “know what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, or had been taught to feel.”          The second ingredient of a powerful memoir is a reflective quality; that sense of looking back on experiences, exploring patterns and organizing and finding meaning. Some things that we choose to write about may not be inherently all that interesting but it is what you […]

How to Make a Clambake

A New England Clambake A clambake is literally and figuratively “baking clams” along with other foods that are available in summer months in New England – usually lobsters, corn on the cob, chicken and potatoes. These items are stacked on top of each other – sometimes separated by seaweed – with the order determined by cooking time. The most traditional way to prepare a clambake is to cook it in a hole on a beach. But – there are simpler ways to have a clambake, too. Here are two methods, starting with the most complicated: Traditional Clambake – this will serve at least 20 people (maybe more). 50 hard-shell clams (be sure they are scrubbed clean or soaked) 4 dozen ears of corn 5 broiling chickens (optional) 20 potatoes (white or sweet) 20 1 ½- lb. lobsters or about 3 dozen soft-shell crabs (depends on the season) 150 soft-shell clams (optional – usually called steamers) Start preparations at least four hours before serving time. Dig a pit in the sand about 1-foot deep and 3 ½ feet across. Line it with smooth round rocks that have not been baked before. Have a wet tarpaulin (canvas) ready – big enough to overlap the pit area by about 1 foot all around. Have some rocks handy to weigh down the edges of the tarp. Build a fire over the rocks in the hole using a hardwood and keep feeding it for the next 2 ½ to […]

A Tribute to Nurses

National Nurses Week begins each year on May 6, the day that Florence Nightingale, the founder of professional nursing, went to the Crimean War as a nurse in 1853, and ends on her birthday – May 12.  During this week we acknowledge the excellence and dedication of those who choose the nursing profession. I grew up surrounded by nurses in a nursing home in Old Mystic, CT that my family owned and operated in the 1950s. My mother’s skills as a Registered Nurse also made her the go-to person for many emergencies around the village – cuts, burns and even broken bones, head injuries and emotional problems. Injured people would show up at the nursing home, like they do today at emergency rooms, except that she received no compensation other than the occasional basket of eggs or leg of lamb that might arrive later. I can still see my mother rushing from the bedside of an elderly person and calmly cleaning and dressing someone’s bloody wound after an accident down the street. On another occasion, I remember her carefully positioning a child’s possibly broken leg after a fall from a tree. Eventually, Dr. Ryley or Dr. Fowler would arrive from Mystic, but watching my mother and her nurse colleagues in action, day after day, offered me firsthand knowledge that nurses were the unsung heroines. They were the first responders in the old days. Nurses in war zones and military settings also did their job quietly and largely unnoticed, putting their lives in peril on […]

April 5, 2020: National Gold Star Spouses Day

On Sunday, April 5, 2020 Gold Star Spouses across the United states will be acknowledged but few people know the grassroots origins of the organization that propelled this special day into existence.  It was a muggy July evening in 1945 when five young women, whose husbands had died in World War II, traveled to Hyde Park, New York, to meet with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt later wrote in her news column, My Day,  “…they came for supper, and then went to Poughkeepsie the Lafayette Post of the American Legion had given them permission to use a room… It was a small meeting, though the casualties among servicemen from Dutchess County were pretty high.” These five widows had first met together in Marie Jordan’s apartment in New York City to talk about how they might band together to support the needs of all war widows and their children. After Marie’s husband, Edward Jordan, had died in combat in 1944 in Alsdorf, Germany, she scanned newspapers for the death notices of other fallen soldiers and the names of their widows. She called a few who lived close by and invited them to lunch at her apartment where she lived with her small son. Losing a spouse in combat meant also losing medical care, commissary privileges and even a place to live if they lived in military housing. Many widows had married young and had no job training. They had little or no resources from the U.S. government and often relied on the charity of family and friends. Out of desperation, Marie and four other widows formed a support group called the American Widows […]

Writing About Traumatic Events

How many times have you heard people say in the aftermath of a traumatic event: “I just can’t talk about it right now.”  They are mute, as if the right words have not yet been invented to pinpoint their feelings. Some eventually find expressive relief by writing poems, essays, memoirs, keeping a journal or even describing what happened on Facebook.  Those who are visually oriented may speak through the creation of a painting or other art project. There are no rules or even guidelines for self-expression at the boundary of trauma but many who have been through the experience say that describing it to another person does help. Finding the words Our body tells us when we’re ready to unpack and codify feelings, to put words or other artistic expression around painful experiences. For some, even recollection of the experience can stay tucked away for years and emerge years later, perhaps when another life-changing event dredges up old memories. A Vietnam War veteran once shared with me that he didn’t speak about the war he experienced until years later when his son was about to be deployed to Desert Storm in the early 1990s: “It hit me like a ton of bricks – my son might be about to experience the same horrors that I had witnessed. I had to start talking, sharing my own experience, after twenty years of silence.” Owning the story Sometimes the burden of owning the story is so great that there is a need to fictionalize and tell it as if it happened to someone else. It can take months or years to become comfortable with the telling.  Whatever the starting point, be kind to […]

Christmas in the 1950s: A Celebration of Memory

When I grew up in Old Mystic, Connecticut in the 1950s, my family attended a former meetinghouse in Ledyard founded by the Rogerene Quakers in the 18thcentury. Both of my parents had descended from Rogerene followers and both were born at home in Ledyard in the early 1920s. Over time, religious practices at Quakertown changed from their simpler early belief of a God within each of us to a “church” that was more evangelical and fundamentalist. For a kid, the best part of attending Quakertown Church was that Christmas was a cause for an exuberant celebration.   Sometime in the early twentieth century, the weekly worship service had become mainly music and lots of “praising” with people jumping up spontaneously to shout, “Praise the Lord!” They would mention the sick and needy during the praising and ask for blessings. Some people, overtaken by the Holy Spirit, rolled on the floor in the center aisle while speaking in tongues, a nonsensical language (to a child’s ear) over which the speaker supposedly has no control. For me, it seemed like a curious venting of adult emotion. These were folks who had disavowed dancing, smoking and sinning in general but this rave effect on Sunday morning was allowed. Kids didn’t speak this language but grownups appeared to feel better after the attack of tongues subsided. When they got back to their seats, often with assistance, they would be smiling and perspiring At Christmastime kids could have fun, too. There were trees laced with paper chains and ropes strung with cranberries and popcorn at the front of the church. Choirs and soloists sang […]
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