I spent a good hour yesterday drafting a Memorial Day story, and then it hit me: I’ve already written this story.
It’s a good one, at least I think so, all about my great Uncle Paul, gone 21 years before I was born. He was only 21 when he was killed in action, so there’s symmetry there. Memorial Day always conjures Paul for me. The holiday’s stated intention isn’t barbecues and screaming discounts on mattresses, after all, but remembering those who died in combat. As far as I know, Paul is my only ancestor who made that ultimate sacrifice.
That’s a pretty startling run, given that the Stafford side of my family has been in this country since before the Revolutionary War. I have no idea how many veterans share my genetic material–presumably a lot, and yet Paul is the only one that I know of who was killed in action. Only Paul, my grandmother’s favorite brother-in-law, carries the burden for a bloodline stretching back to the days of British America. Only Paul paid the blood tax.
It seems like a strange thing to celebrate. For 20 months Paul survived some of the fiercest combat in Europe, his unit at times experiencing casualty rates as high as 80 percent. Being the one out of five who survives, now that seems celebration worthy. It probably wasn’t for him, though. I imagine that he was thankful to be alive, but that must have been tempered by some degree of survivor’s guilt.
But three weeks shy of Germany’s surrender, Paul caught one. I have a letter that he wrote to my grandmother just a few weeks prior to that day. “These 19 months over here are wearing me down, and I mean plenty,” he wrote, but aside from that one moment his letter is three pages of niceties and small talk. Maybe he needed to feel normal for a few minutes, or maybe he wanted to assure the folks back home that everything was okay.
I think that’s it. Staff Sergeant Paul Stafford, platoon leader, was just Paul the paperboy from Moravia, Iowa, a literal small town farm boy. To his family back home, the war was a map on the wall with pushpins marking his brothers’ and his last known locations. One of those brothers had just survived the Battle of the Bulge. “I also had a letter from Otis and he is getting along just swell,” Paul wrote. Everything is okay. Don’t worry. Just go back to your map and your farm. Be normal.
That’s what they all do, these men and women who leave as proverbial farm boys and come back as headstones: They carry the whole burden on their shoulders, do everything they can to make things normal and okay for the rest of us. Maybe barbecues and mattress sales are exactly the kinds of Memorial Day activities they’d appreciate, after all.