where the writers are
A Family Story
WWII--My grandfather, mother, uncle

War is big, huge, a whole earth story, but war is also something close, home, ours, even if we don't want it.  But for my family, World War 2 wasn't just a myth but a story we held close because it changed our family, made it something that it is now.  Without it, I wouldn't be here--with it, given different circumstances, I wouldn't be here either.

My grandfather, Lloyd Randall, was Lieutenant Commander Randall, a Naval officer on the USS Gasconade, the ship's doctor.  The Gasconade was commissioned March 11th, 1945 and left San Francisco for Samar Island May 9th.  My grandfather was on his way to Tokyo Bay when the United States dropped the bombs August 6 and 9th, and the Gasconade made it to the September 2nd surrender ceremonies by September 1st.

In a letter written September 1st, 1945, my grandfather writes: 

Dearest Vida:

We're due into Tokyo bay tomorrow at 10 am.  So far the trip has been fairy busy but uneventful.  Wind kicked up a little today and we are rolling a bit but not badly.  . . We had a form letter made up and some special envelopes.  Will send one.  Keep the envelope as it will be stamped and it will be a collector's time in a few years . . . suppose Carole is ready to start school.  How's Bill's lip?  Did they kill the dog?  Many questions, honey, and I have not heard from you for over a week and it will be sometime yet.  No idea yet where we will go from Tokyo.  Lots of love, honey, Lloyd

This doesn't seem to be a letter from a man who has been part of one of the greatest, most horrifying, important events on our earth.  But a man from the Midwest on a ship headed toward more war when suddenly, the war was over.  He wants to know about his kids, the dog (lived until my mother was married), his wife.  In the letter, he also writes about taking photos of all the ships headed to Japan.   The form letter he mentions did arrive in the promised envelope and carries this salutary opening:  "Aboard the USS Missouri anchored nearby, the surrender is being signed that brings to an end this greatest of all world wars."

My grandfather penned at the bottom:  "Didn't expect to get here so soon."

On May 31st, 1946, my grandfather was decommissioned.  James Forrestal wrote"You have served in the greatest Navy in the world . . . No other Navy at any time has done so much.  For your part in these achievements you deserve to be proud as long as you life.  The Nation which you served at a time of crisis will remember you with gratitude."

And he was home, back in Iowa tending his medical flock, living his life with his family, another son yet to be born.  But the story that came to me was this:  if not for the bombs, my grandfather would likely have been killed in action.  There were very bad people over there wanting to do him in, and they are not to be trusted.  Some family members still use a derogatory term for those people, all these many years later.

But another story was that my grandfather had taken his young family to California while he was being trained and before the Gasconade pushed off into the Pacific.  In 1955, my mother--enamored with the sunshine--only applied to California colleges and went to Stanford.  After graduation, she moved to San Francisco and met my father.

In either scenario, real or imagined, without the war, no me.  But without the war, so much else.

No war was ever like World War 2, at least in terms of how we view war.  Even by the time of the Korean war, when MacArthur wanted to radiate whole swaths of land, we were off what we had radioactively wrought.  These days, I don't hear the kind of laudatory language displayed in the letters sent home from the Navy in 1945 and 1946. 

When our President wears a fly suit on a aircraft carrier and stands under a banner that reads "Mission Accomplished," we have the sense to be embarrassed.

But we still have war, happy letters or not.  Lives are changed, altered, stopped, and started again.  People write home to wives and husbands.  Children make plans based on how their parents fight and fought.  And then later, we write about it.

When I think of war, I think of how we humans can't seem to help ourselves, and I consider this poem by Wislawa Szymborska:


The End and the Beginning

After every war

someone has to clean up.

Things won’t

straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble

to the sides of the road,

so the corpse-laden wagons

can pass.

Someone has to get mired

in scum and ashes,

sofa springs,

splintered glass,

and bloody rags.

Someone must drag in a girder

to prop up a wall.

Someone must glaze a window,

rehang a door.

Photogenic it’s not,

and takes years.

All the cameras have left

for another war.

Again we’ll need bridges

and new railway stations.

Sleeves will go ragged

from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,

still recalls how it was.

Someone listens

and nods with unsevered head.

Yet others milling about

already find it dull.

From behind the bush

sometimes someone still unearths

rust-eaten arguments

and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew

what was going on here

must give way to

those who know little.

And less than little.

And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass which has overgrown

causes and effects,

someone must be stretched out,

blade of grass in his mouth,

gazing at the clouds.


Wislawa Szymborska(translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak)