I Was Transformed Through This Project
“There isn’t anyone who you couldn’t learn to love once you know their story.” – Mr. Rogers
The stories that I collected from the WWII generation faithfully transmitted me back in time to a place where the world was experiencing war. There were a variety of different experiences from that one war. Hearing the story of a veteran from the Army, a veteran from the Navy, someone who was in the air force, a POW, a Holocaust survivor, someone who lived in eastern Europe, someone who inhabited the Ukraine, a resident of Germany, someone who was settled in Japan, an Italian who lived on the mainland of Italy and many others allowed me to experience WWII from a plethora of perspectives. Through each perspective, I was able to view someone’s experience in different parts of the war. We all see the world contrarily based on what it is that we experience. World War Two was no different. It was as if I received a gift as I opened and read each package that arrived at my house. Each and every package was the gift of someone’s story. I received all these gifts because people took the time to write out for me and to then send to me their handwritten stories. As I read the stories and then transcribed each story for this oral history project, I could not wait to move the note card to see the next line as I completed each transcription. I hungered to see what the person had to say and to find out what happened next in the person’s story. I was engrossed within their story.
I do not know exactly what it is that made the WWII generation extraordinary, but at a certain point, this project began to have a transformative effect upon me. Was it that these individuals were a part of the WWII generation? Was it that they were elderly? Was it that they lived through a war? Suddenly, this entire ordeal was not just about capturing and hearing stories. I was viewing aging folks in a different light. I sat there with an elderly gentleman (a WWII vet) one afternoon last summer at his home as he told me his WWII story. I could sense that he was lonely. He invited me to stay for dinner. I could not imagine leaving. I would never eat a full plate of pasta because I have intolerance for gluten and I do not digest gluten well, but when he served me that plate of pasta, my heart melted and my “health” concerns went away. I just wanted to share a dinner with this elderly 89 year old who had not conversed with another soul in months.
Through this oral history project, I heard some marvelous stories. I captured History like I set out to do, but from participating in this oral history process, I was also transformed. A part of my heart would have a footprint from the dinner that I shared with the gentleman that night. To most, one of my interviews would most likely come across as random footage of an old guy in a nursing home, but to me, it was something exceedingly more. It was a treasured moment in time that I shared with an incredible man who had an indelible effect upon me. As Flavia Weedn gracefully says,
“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some people move our souls to dance. They awaken us to a new understanding with the passing whisper of their wisdom. Some people make the sky more beautiful to gaze upon. They stay in our lives for a while, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same.”
From nursing homes to VFW halls to phone interviews, somewhere along the way, I discovered that stories transform us. Stories reach us at our core because when someone tells us their story, he/she shares a part of him/her with us.
“Stories are data of the soul.”
Stories Can Cross The Barriers Of Time
I arrived at a VFW in Chicago to complete an interview with a WWII vet on a Friday night. As I visited VFWs throughout Illinois, it always worked out where I entered the bar before I went to the room where I would then complete my interview because in order to get to the room, one had to walk through the bar. That night there were five generations of soldiers who all fought in different wars at the bar that same night: WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I understood that all these soldiers had experienced something that I could never understand in a way that they did. They all had a frame of context, a reference. Getting together on a Friday night and sharing stories over drinks with their fellow army soldiers was therapeutic for these guys. The closest way to get me to experience what it was that they experienced was to tell me their stories. To have been there that night, to see in person the different generations of men who fought for our freedom, the men who defended our country, to see them all together that night was unforgettable. The bartender made me aware when he said, “Look sweetheart, we have five generations of war right there,” as he pointed to the guys sitting along the bar. Another man finished the sentence for the bartender and pointed out the name of each veteran and in what war he served. I thought to myself that yet again, I was experiencing living history. In this treasured moment, I decided that living History is transformative.
I never contemplated that I would connect with such completeness with individuals 60 to 80 years older than me. Even with two generations between us (the Baby Boomers and Generation X), I saw similarities in the lives that the WWII generation led and my own life. Completing these interviews brought meaning to the words: wise and wisdom. The elderly can teach us all kinds of ideas about life. To begin, it is vital for us to want to underdtand and to remember where we come from. We can learn what it was like before we were around from the elderly. From the WWII vets, I understood that indeed stories can cross the barriers of time. As Andrew Stanton explains in his powerful TED talk,
“We are born for stories. stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. Nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect thru stories. Stories can cross the barriers of time, past present, and future. Stories allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves and through others.”
There were two generations between the WWII vets and myself and yet their stories not only made me apprehend WWII better than I ever thought that I could, but their stories allowed me to understand my life and the world better. That is my hope for you as you read this book. I hope that you too will understand this world better based on what the WWII generation had to say.
An Invisible Thread
They were unlikely friendships – someone in her twenties bonding with scads of ninety year olds. As the old Chinese proverb says, “An invisible thread connects those who are destined to meet regardless of time place and circumstance; the thread may stretch or tangle but it will never break.” The thread that will always keep me connected to the WWII generation is the stories that I heard. This thread will never break because those individuals and their stories will forever and always be a part of me. It won’t break because those stories are engraved in my heart. The years will pass and as they do, the WWII generation will be gone. “Too Late” will have arrived. Most likely in my own lifetime what happened with the last living WWI veteran will too happen with the special WWII generation with whom I bonded. But I will always be connected with this great generation because for a moment in time, I stopped, I asked, and I listened. Because I listened, I learned. Now I’m sharing and I’m telling you these stories because I owe it to the individuals who touched my life in a very momentous way to tell their stories. I established that we change and transform when someone shares their stories with us.
“We’re all made of stories. When they finally put us underground, the stories are what will go on. Not forever, perhaps, but for a time. It’s a kind of immortality, I suppose, bounded by limits, it’s true, but then so’s everything.” – Charles de Lint