Archives For Memorial Day

The Memorial Day Parade in my town of Bridgewater, Connecticut takes 11 minutes.

Newcomers to town are told to “get there early, or you’ll miss it….and you had better get there early, because it begins at 8:15 A.M.”

Every year, there is a ceremony that follows the parade. The boy scouts lead the pledge, and students recite The Gettysburg Address. Small American flags are clutched in the hands of children, volunteer fireman in uniform stand at attention, and there is always a small puppy in the crowd.

The reason we gather together, however, is always for a more somber tribute. The names of those recently deceased residents who served in the military in defense of the country are read aloud. Then, there is a guest speaker.

Memorial Day

Bridgewater resident John Kracen telling his real war story

This year, resident John Kracen told a real war story.

He began his war story with the date: July 29, 1967, a “date that would change forever the lives of 5,000 men.”

He described the location: Gulf of Tonkin, during the Vietnam War.

He named the ship: the USS Forrestal.

As Kracen began his real war story, he described the ship, a Forrestal-class aircraft carrier: 990 ft at waterline, steam turbines, 33 knots. He then described the aircraft on board, and included the F-4B Phantom II that accidentally fired a Zuni rocket on the flight deck that July morning. He described how that misfired rocket hit another aircraft’s external fuel tanks leaking jet fuel, spreading a fire across the flight deck.

Kracen described how one of the Composition B bombs detonated minutes after the start of the fire, tearing a hole into the ship’s hull. He described how the shrapnel from that explosion pierced the water hoses of the fire crew and that the burning jet fuel drained into a lower bay of the ship.

Near me, a small boy sitting on the curb of the Green listening to Kracen turned to his mother. “What is happening, Mom?” he asked quietly.

“It’s a story,” she whispered back.

The boy turned his attention back to Kracen to listen.

Kracen continued telling the story of his friend, Stephen L. Hock, who had gone to help put out the fires that continued throughout the night. He described Hock’s kindness and his camaraderie.  He then told us that his friend Stephen Hock was one of the 134 men killed on the USS Forrestal because of the fire.

For a small town, 1,727 residents, Bridgewater has significant connections to history. During the morning’s Memorial Day Roll Call, there was “survivor of Iwo Jima” from World War II who had his name read aloud.  Now, his neighbors stood in the soft rain listening to a survivor from another historical event tell his story from a different war.

A war story has power when it is a first-hand account. The poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892) was a first-hand witness to events of the Civil War and his auto-biographical accounts of the Civil War were collected in several volumes. He spent time in the hospitals that were filled with the casualties from both sides, and the carnage led him to conclude,

“I now doubt whether one can get a fair idea of what this war practically is, or what genuine America is, and her character, without some such experience as this I am having. “

Whitman wrote of his difficulty to produce an “authentic” portrait of the war and in the essay titled “The Real War Will Never Get in the Books” (1875)  in Specimen Days, he wrote

Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors…

….Think how much, and of importance, will be—how much, civic and military, has already been—buried in the grave, in eternal darkness.

John Kracen shared his own story with a crowd on Memorial Day to commemorate the sacrifice his friend Stephen Hock made, a sacrifice like so many other American soldiers who now lay buried in the grave, in eternal darkness. Kracen’s emotional account of the disastrous fire on the USS Forrestal was compelling because it was his first hand, his authentic account, his own story.

Research proves that our brains are hard-wired for such stories. We tell our children stories to explain how the world works; our children learn the quality of empathy through story.

This past Memorial Day in Bridgewater, the small boy sitting on the curb, the students in the school’s marching band, and the parents in the crowd heard Kracen tell his story of his experience during the fire on the USS Forrestal. They heard a powerful real war story, one that may never, as Whitman said, get in the books.

Since the end of the Civil War, the last Monday in May has been set aside as Memorial Day, a day to honor all Americans who have died in military service for their country. There will be opportunities to celebrate by singing patriotic songs, wave flags in time with bands in parades, and eat barbecue.

There is, however, little to celebrate in the details of a death that occurs in military combat.  The specifics in a soldier’s death are painful to hear or to read, but our discomfort should not prevent us from acknowledging the depth and breadth of each soldier’s sacrifice. Many of the returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are writing about their personal experiences and noting the sacrifices made by their fellow soldiers.  These veterans write memoirs and include stories about friends who were killed. They recall their intimate thoughts when they themselves confronted death. They write about the grisly horrors they witnessed in war. Some write about people they killed in conflict. Some fictionalize accounts of their military experiences.  Brian Turner writes poetry.

Brian Turner was an infantry team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division from November 2003 where he served in Iraq. He already had an MFA from the University of Oregon before he joined to serve seven years in the U.S. Army. His first book of poetry, Here, Bullet, chronicles his time in Iraq. In the video below, he reads the title poem at Bowdoin College (November 29, 2005) in a film by documentary filmmaker Eric Herter, sponsored by From the Fishouse, an online audio archive of emerging poets,

Here, Bullet

If a body is what you want
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood.

(continue on his site…)

Our 11th graders review this poem and several other Turner poems when they read Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried, another piece of literature that is dedicated to the sacrifices made by soldiers during war. O’Brien’s connected short stories about an Army platoon during the Vietnam War also comes from his personal experience. In both works, images are painfully raw; some of the language in each is vulgar. Our students appreciate the authenticity and the authority of these voices in capturing the images of war. In O’Brien’s stories and in Turner’s poetry, war does not provide reasons for celebration other than the celebration of war’s end and the return of soldiers to their homes.

Consequently, Turner’s poetry does not give the reader the parade, picnic, or flag waving poetry that people recall in images about Memorial Day. His poetry is a painful tribute; an agonizing truth that people must remember. His poetry reminds us that our freedom has been purchased at a cost, and that cost may be through another’s suffering. His voice reminds us why we should never forget that cost, why there is a Memorial Day.