Veterans Day Rough Draft: Legacy of War
Note: My students are about to embark on a narrative writing project in which they will write about a public figure or family member in terms of the hero's journey. How does an experience in, or phase of, this person's life reflect the monomyth? The first part of this assignment involves writing the story. The second part will involve researching the details, and the third part will involve bringing elements of mythology and epic literature to the final product. In this way, I hope they will see that the hero's journey is their journey, that each of us can be the hero of his or her own life. To model this process, I drafted the story of my Great Uncle Laurence. His story has appeared on this blog in various forms before. I'm putting it here again because today is Veterans Day and because I sorely need to reflect on what is good about my country. I am finding it in the past as I steel myself for the future and refuse to allow narcissistic sociopaths to take it from me.
My great uncle Allan Isbell, a World War II veteran, a family man, and my childhood mentor, spent his adult life searching for his second younger brother, Laurence. He traveled the country to remote places where he might encounter men who might have known his brother, he wrote letters to other men who might have met him, he researched government records, media reports--over and over again. My great uncle Laurence Isbell had been a submariner in the Second World War, and he perished in the Pacific. My uncle believed that stories heal heartache when a man hunts for the truth.
After his retirement from the Barden Corporation in Danbury, where he had worked since his return from the War, he had converted his son’s bedroom into his “inner sanctum,” a personal refuge where he kept his collection of books, letters, newspaper clippings, family artifacts, photographs. In that sacred space, he had a four-foot-wide photograph of the USS Herring, and he could tell you about every inch of that U-boat from the bunks to the officers’ berths to the torpedo tubes to the galley, where Laurence was ship’s cook third class, to the conning tower--and the battle station where his younger brother Laurence, who would have been 19 years old, stood when the Japanese fired on the boat from land and sank it.
My great uncle could not say whether Laurence, his best man at his wedding, died instantly or whether he died amid the blare of alarms and the tumult of a boat punctured and gushing with water and fuel and the myriad bits and pieces of life that remind warriors that they are brothers, sons, best men who will return to their families.
What my great uncle could not say nobody in the family dared to say. What they dared not say they did not accept. Neither the telegram that came weeks after that battle off the Kurile Islands in the Pacific saying Laurence was believed to be dead nor the letter from the Secretary of the Navy to my great-grandmother confirming her son was dead ( he died a good death for a just cause and she and her husband could claim $10,000 for their loss). Long after the war, May Isbell, Allan and Laurence Isbell’s mother, searched photos of American POWs and castaways rescued from the Pacific in search of her son. He was somewhere, she knew. So it broke her heart when the Flood of 55 swept through the first floor of the home she designed and her husband built for their young family in 1914 and destroyed their furniture. What, she worried, would Laurence do if he came home and looked into a window to see different furniture? And they were not home at the time? He might move on. Laurence might believe that his family were gone.
May Isbell, my Gold-Star great-grandmother, never let her family see her weep for her lost boy. Her decorum was legendary. The story goes that when that telegram arrived, May and her daughter Dorothy--they called her Dot--were making spaghetti sauce. Dot opened the door to the boy on the bicycle with the folded piece of paper that told her one of her three brothers was gone. She brought the sealed notice to her mother, who took it up to her bedroom and read it with her husband. They emerged from their quarters when they were ready to be strong for their family.
I have often wondered about my great-grandmother and how she stood the loss. Laurence was her fourth child, born a few years after she had nursed her husband back to health from a life-threatening illness. He was a fair-haired, blue-eyed boy who played football with the boys down the lane, cut up with his siblings, and wept when she played her violin. Because she could not stand to see him weep, she gave up playing. When this beloved boy came to her after Pearl Harbor, when he was still 16, and asked her to sign off on the government form required of parents whose children want to fight for their country, she signed. He was going anyway, he said. So she surrendered her child to the war that had already claimed the services of her two older sons--one in the Pacific and one in Africa.
When Allan Isbell returned from the war, he put away his uniform, put on work clothes, and started at Barden’s, a ball-bearing factory started by Army men whose products were essential to American defense, the airline industry, and ballpoint pen manufacturers. He raised his sons with his wife, vacationed on Cape Cod, grew his own vegetables, read nonfiction, tinkered with inventions in his workshop, traced our family history back to the Norman Invasion of England, and saw life take his two sons and wife before he was an old man. All the while, he searched for Laurence.
His efforts brought him letters from veteran sailors who had met him and could say kind things about this brave, decent, easy-going kid who served his country well. His efforts also brought him letters from men who had not met him but said much the same thing.
One summer, his search for Laurence took him to Alabama, the state charged with the responsibility of commemorating the USS Herring, to observe the commemoration of the ship’s bell and to meet the author of Thunder Below!, a book about the submarine service in the Pacific during World War II. Allan Isbell bought a copy for each of his surviving siblings, and asked the author to inscribe each of them with what he could say about Laurence and the Herring.
My great uncle gave me his copy in the year before his death in a nursing home in Danbury that stood about a mile from the Barden Corporation and two miles from the decent, sturdy home he had built for his family. From the time I was in high school, my great uncle had been my mentor and friend. Over the years he taught me through our shared hobby of stamp collecting what it was like to grow up in America when this country’s potential for optimism and growth seemed boundless, to endure the limitations and the grinding uncertainty of the Great Depression, to go to war months after your marriage, to endure the loss of brothers, a sister (my grandmother) and sons, and to live responsibly and honorably and modestly through it all. To love your family and to be kind.
Even when I was a girl in high school, my great uncle would stand for me when I entered the room and hold my chair. He stopped only after two strokes trapped him into his wheelchair. And even then, when I would visit him, he would take my coat or sweater with his one good arm and lay it on his bed. The finer points of being thoroughly good were never lost to him.
In the end, my great-uncle left me a story of my country, my family, and myself. Over the years, I know that the Isbells did not simply tie on their boots and go to war, that they had their own ideas about it. I learned that what and how we live our lives and grieve our losses define the character of future generations as well as the present one.
Toward the end of my uncle’s life, he niece Janet visited him at the nursing home to bring him his Army cap. The day he came home after the war, he had put it on a heating pipe down cellar so that it would dry. Janet had found it when she and her husband were renovating the family home in the late 1990s. She thought he’d like it.
After she left, he handed me the cap and pointed with his chin to his dresser. Through a series of hand gestures, he indicated to me that I should put the cap under the newspapers and odds and ends he had stored in the top drawer. There was family. And the war again. I closed the drawer and surveyed the photos atop his dresser. My eyes rested on the one photo that was always to the fore: Laurence and his father standing under the grape arbor behind their home in Darien. The sun light is bright, and Laurence is radiant in his Navy whites. In that moment, Laurence is forever, and so is my family. And so is my nation.