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I've written--earlier, here and elsewhere--about my father's experiences in North Africa and Europe during World War Two. If you've read Rick Atkinson's excellent books (beginning with "An Army at Dawn"), you have an idea of how hard and frightening and wild that whole campaign was. My dad almost died a couple of times but still came home from war full of tales of adventure--a country boy in the ancient homelands. My mother would leave the room when he geared up for another story about Italy and German soldiers and stolen champagne.
I never knew either of my biological grandfathers but my grandmother's second husband was, in every sense, my grandfather. His war story is different.
He was in World War One, the War to End All Wars. And he was in France, too. The VA doctors who tended him in his later years told me that his chronic lung problems were due to the gas that was used in the fields of France--what we've come to call mustard gas.
But he didn't talk about it. There were no tales about stolen champagne or pretty French girls. There was a cameo that he'd brought back and given to his first (of three) wives--a cameo I own now. There was the mumbled information that there'd been a town in France called "Nancy."
That was it. That was all. He didn't talk about it. There were no artifacts, no souvenirs. Only a beautiful cameo with no real provenance.
This is the year that marks the centennial of that war's fatal start. I don't know if any WW1 vets are still alive. But I know that the one I knew was still suffering from the horrors of it when he died in the early 1980s.
This Memorial Day I am thinking of him and how his life might have been different if he'd avoided the war somehow. He lived a long life with a loving wife and family around him. He worked in his own barber shop into his 70s and was also a Methodist lay minister on the weekends.
And long ago, he was in a town called Nancy, in France.
That and a cameo is all.
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