The last battle of World War II was fought 70 years ago next month, but for tens of thousands of American servicemen — and women — the battles continued at home. Only then, the soldiers didn’t have their buddies next to them in the foxhole.
This war — waged with horrible memories, nightmares and survivor’s guilt — had to be fought completely alone. It was a time before post-traumatic stress, before therapy, before men were encouraged to reach out. The World War II vet was thus unable or unwilling to talk about why he sat up screaming in the night, or drank too much or worked three jobs so he would be too tired to dream.
“You couldn’t talk about that stuff. No one would have believed it anyway,” one old soldier told me in the mid-1990s.
So, countless American families live with the pain of the war after the war. That is the untold story of the Greatest Generation. It is the story of my novel, “Every Common Sight.” Since the book was published a few months ago, I’ve heard from so many children of World War II vets, who speak in such poignant ways of how the war is still very much a part of their lives.
What follows is a scene from the book, a version of which was played out in so many households over the decades. Selma is the loving and patient wife of Wendell Smith, a tortured hero of the Battle of the Bulge. But something happens in the dead of night and Selma can be patient no more.
* * *
On that November evening in 1956, I drove down our road with the windows wide open, the smell of roast beef and mashed potatoes and gravy drifting out from tin foil-covered plates that were in the back seat. I guess you never fully appreciate anything until you face the prospect of losing it, so I loved our little road more than ever that night, stopping halfway down to listen to the rustle of the branches above me, and to feel the cool of autumn on my face. How many more times would I drive on this beautiful little road?
Wendell was waiting out front.
“I fed William and asked Judy Springer to watch him. We needed to talk alone tonight.’’
“I guess so,’’ Wendell said.
“Help me carry,’’ I said.
I opened the Studebaker’s back door and bent to retrieve the two plates, handing them to him. I took a grocery bag from the seat and shut the door with my hip. Wendell’s desk was in a small office in the rear. I put the bag on a chair and moved his paperwork, making room for two wicker place mats that I took from the sack. Wendell set out the plates and removed the foil. Steam billowed.
I brushed strands of curly hair away from his eyes. His face was ghostly pale and felt feverish.
“Eat, Wendell, before the food gets cold,’’ I said.
Each of us took a few half-hearted bites. I set my fork and knife on his desk.
“William told me that he talked to you this morning,’’ I said. “He said that you told him he must have been dreaming when he heard me cry.’’
The trembling in Wendell’s hands intensified. He set his fork down and stared at his plate.
“That’s what I told him,’’ Wendell said.
“The boy’s nearly 8 years old,’’ I said. “Lying to him will only make it worse.’’
“I didn’t know what else to say, just like now.’’
“How I wish it was just another one of your nightmares,’’ I said.
“I’m sorry,’’ he said.
“Let me see your arm,’’ I said.
“No,’’ he said.
“Show me your arm or I’ll leave this minute,” I said.
He rolled the sleeve up his left arm to his elbow. A fresh, angry wound ran from just below his elbow to almost his wrist, and was starting to scab over.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry? Jesus Christ, Selma.”
He looked over at me.
“Show me your neck,’’ he said.
I had worn a turtleneck sweater.
“There’s no need,” I said. “We both know what happened. And it’s not my neck that’s hurting.’’
“I’m hurting, too,’’ Wendell said.
When I think of what happened next, it’s as if I’m watching another woman, a stranger who came flying out of her chair, sweeping her full plate of food from the desk, sending it crashing onto the tile. Gobs of meat, mashed potatoes, gravy and cream corn were everywhere.
“Then why won’t you talk to me?’’ I screamed.
Wendell rocked back, stunned. I slumped back down to my chair and covered my face with my hands. Sobbing consumed me for several frightening seconds. Wendell started from his chair, but I finally got a gasp of air and I waved him off.
Wendell walked to the bathroom and came back with a handful of tissue.
“Thank you,” I said after blowing my nose. “I’m sorry. That was no way to act.’’
“You have every right,’’ Wendell said.
“Well, maybe I do,’’ I said. “Do you know what it’s been like for me the last few years?’’
I blew my nose again.
“But I couldn’t erase the memories of what it used to be like,’’ I said.
“I’m sorry, Selma,’’ Wendell said. “You deserve better.’’
“I’m not sure you’re entitled to feel sorry for yourself,” I said. “I’ve tried every way I know to get you to talk to me. But you were always too busy or too tired. Well, to hell with that. In some ways, I think you enjoy your anguish. It gives you an excuse to disappear into that dark little world of yours. But I’ve had it. Like I said, spare me the self-pity.’’
I had never seen Wendell look so sad, but that night I realized that he had controlled me with that mournful look, manipulated me.
“So last night I wake up with my husband’s hands around my throat.’’
“I don’t know what happened,’’ Wendell said.
“Of course you don’t, Wendell,’’ I said. “It was a dream. Only this time the dream spilled over. Only this time it wasn’t enough to swear and scream and sweat and thrash beneath the covers. Who was I supposed to be, some German?’’
“I don’t know,’’ Wendell said.
“What if I hadn’t been able to wake you up?’’ I asked.
He rolled his sleeve back down to his wrist.
“I’ve done a lot of thinking today, Wendell,’’ I said, straightening in my chair, dabbing my eyes with the soggy tissue. “You know one of the scariest parts? I’m not even surprised. Whatever it was that you have been running from over here at the lumberyard was bound to catch you some day at home.”
I swallowed hard against another sob.
“I probably would have been willing to wait until the day I died for you to come back to me,’’ I said. “But I can’t live wondering when you’ll finish what you started last night. I can’t let William live in a place where that might happen. Our son has to come first.’’
“He’s always come first,’’ he said.
“You’d never know from the last two years,” I said.
He didn’t reply.
“My mother will be here in an hour or so,’’ I said. “I called this morning.’’
It was like he expected what I would say next.
“I’m leaving with William tomorrow, taking him out of school for a week and going back to San Antonio with my mother, at least until after Thanksgiving,’’ I said. “I need some time away to think.’’
I wondered if he had heard me.
“Is there anything you’d like to say?’’ I asked.
“There’s nothing to say,’’ he whispered. “Other than I’m sorry.’’
“I know you are, Wendell,’’ I said. “I’m sorry, too.”
“Things just aren’t that simple,’’ Wendell said.
“I don’t suppose they are. But what does that change?’’
A few hours later, I felt Wendell’s touch on my shoulder, then his weight settle onto the side of our bed. I turned to face him.
“Don’t go,’’ he said.
“I need to, Wendell,’’ I said.
“Will you stay if I talk?’’ he asked. “I’ll talk until my dying breath.’’
“It might be too late, Wendell,’’ I said.
“I’ll sleep at the lumberyard until things are better,’’ he said.
“Let’s talk in the morning,’’ I said. “Lie down.’’
He swung his legs up. I rolled toward him and tucked my head onto his shoulder. We were both asleep in a few deep, exhausted breaths. My mother found us that way when she peeked in at first light.