In 7th grade social studies, Mr T. invited two guests to speak to us. We were a class of rowdy kids suffering from severe spring fever. Tired of reading and hearing about the dusty old past that happened EONS ago to people we had never met. It was a man and woman with strange accents. They babbled on about the war we were learning about.
I was twelve and well...I couldn't relate to the stories of the wars and destruction. I had never experienced it. The whole concept of war was foreign, it wasn't something that was shown on the TV. Parents discussed such things in hushed tones and in the other room.
I dutifully sat in in chair and gave the impression that I was listening and hanging on each word they said. At one point the woman was overcome with emotion and her husband helped her sit in the desk next to mine. My attention got drawn to how she kept fidgeting with her sleeve and bracelets on her left arm.
Truthfully I didn't understand a word they said. Nor did I care to. What a complete waste that 40 min period was. That day quickly forgotten with zillions of other moments in my life.
In 1986 I was 21 years old enrolled in Professor D's history class in college. We were covering WW II and as he passionately spoke about the Holocaust he suddenly stopped lecturing and waited until he had our full attention. He picked up a picture of the concentration camp and held it up for us to all see.
"This happened 41 years ago. It didn't happen to people you don't know, it happened to your grandparents generation. There are people alive today who were there. This war happened THIS century."
Suddenly what he said made everything click in my head. For some reason I had always thought the world wars had happened at least a 100 of years ago, perhaps even 500 years before I was born. Mr D was a very skilled teacher who PUT you into history vs just telling you about it. WW II ended in 1945 ..... just 20 years before I was born. My mind reeled at this staggering info. How did this knowledge not make it to my brain even after studying it in high school? heck even as far back as Jr high?
My brain burped up that memory from 7th grade. Those people, who came to talk to us. The thick Polish - Jewish accent. The tattoo on her arm she kept trying to hide with her sleeve/bracelets. They were telling us about there experiences in the concentration camps. Tears came to my eyes. What a complete waste. WHAT A COMPLETE WASTE. Living history, SITTING right next to me. All wasted on my young mind who couldn't fathom what a thing like war was, or could be. If they would have spoken to me now, I would have hung on every word.
I left class that day changed.
I went home and got into my knife/sword collection and got out the long broad sword with the Japanese etched on the blade. Professor D's words echoed in my ears. "It happened to your grandparents generation."
My mind again burped up a forgotten memory. The day I found the sword at the flea mart. I had stopped by my grandparents store on the way home to show off my treasure. I showed Grandma first and told her I though tit was so pretty. She didn't seem impressed. Grandpa Gill came upon us and watched frozen and I turned the blade so the etching would catch the light. "I love it its so beautiful! and only 5 dollars! so much fun!" I half squealed.
Grandpa did something out of character for him. His face reddened and he started shouting. All I could make out as Grandma pushed him away to the back room was:
"KIDS! THEY HAVE NO IDEA! NO IDEA! THE TRUTH OF HOW UGLY IT IS!"
I clearly remember thinking. "well no one will tell us."
What a complete waste. My grandfather served in WW II. He was in the second wave that cleaned up the beach at Normandy. What he would have told me that day if Grandma hadn't shushed him would have been more powerful then anything I every could have read in a text book.
The sword I held suddenly no longer was beautiful. I put it away with a new understanding.
The next time I went to work I looked though my residents charts and found that many of the people on my wing had served in WW I and in WW II. I started asking those men and women about their experiences. This time I LISTENED. I wasted nothing this time.
I had the opportunity to talk with a German soldier too, to hear another side. What I found was a lot of strong emotions and believes. None so powerfully brought to life as the afternoon many years ago when they announced the new pope had been chosen and he was German.
I was at work and the lobby was filled with little old reserved ladies. As it was announced they all started shouting and saying vile things. A time portal opened up and I was witness to the strong emotions from a time in the past when there was a deep hatred. I watched and listened.
I listened to my father as he told me about his memories of riding to the Japanese interment camps. My heart breaking for all sides in these wars. So many wars.
I have taken care of so many wounded men and women, who lived a life that I can't even imagine living the life I have had.
"I ran away and lied about my age, joined the Navy when I was 16. Ship hit a mine, only three of us were strong enough swimmers to make it to shore." He tells me proudly showing me his handsome picture in his navy uniform.
I touch his hand. "You are a special breed of man."
"Having the guts to stand up and go do what you did."
He leans back in his chair. "guts had nothing to do with it."
I wait for his answer. But it never comes. Just tears as he looks down at the picture and gently touches it. At last he takes up my hand and gently kisses it.