Stories of Armistice Day and the Great War

Published 8:18 am Friday, November 9, 2012

Column: Notes From Home

When I was growing up, my family was not normal, which will not surprise anybody. What might surprise people is that it took me a long time to realize it.

Some of our eccentricities were insignificant, like our rule about how chocolate was not meant to be shared, or how St. Nicholas came to our house on Dec. 6 instead of Christmas Eve. I grew up eating schmeer sandwiches (two pieces of bread with bacon fat in between). It wasn’t until high school that I actually thought about what I was eating while getting the jar of bacon fat out of the fridge, and fixed ham and cheese with mustard instead.

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Other examples of our strangeness are bigger. When I was young, Nov. 11 was Armistice Day, when the peace treaty ending the Great War was commemorated. It was as if the change in 1954 had never happened. Again, it wasn’t until high school that I noticed everybody else called it Veterans Day.

Recognizing it as Veterans Day, though, didn’t re-establish normality. It’s a long story, but here’s the short version: After my father resigned his commission as a U.S. naval officer, we moved to Tucson, Ariz., so that he could attend law school. That’s when Grandma moved in with us.

Between them, Dad and Grandma made Nov. 11 a surreal experience.

Grandma’s habit of talking about the Great War (or World War I) meant Nov. 11 usually included stories about what it was like for her as a girl in Germany during that conflict and the aftermath. I learned my great-grandfather stole a horse and escaped from a POW camp in France — in the winter of 1919, over a year after Germany had surrendered.

She told stories about what it was like for family members still in Germany when World War II began, about the bombings and my great-uncles proudly serving in the Wehrmacht, not fighting against it. Sometimes my mom would talk about being the daughter of a German immigrant, with swastikas painted on the front door late at night or getting tripped in the hall at school while kids whispered “kraut go home” as they walked past.

One Armisti … Veterans Day, Grandma told us she hated turnips because toward the end of the war and afterwards, that’s all they had to eat. Turnip gruel for breakfast. Turnip soup with a few scraps of ham fat for dinner. Boiled turnips with parsley for supper.

Dad’s wartime experiences — Vietnam — left him a bit raw and damaged. He sold all of his military gear at a garage sale: His uniforms. His sidearm. His sword. He even tried to sell his medals, though Mom saw them on the table, quickly scooped them up when he wasn’t looking, and dumped them in a wooden box where I kept my collection of odds and ends.

Much later I learned he had tried to connect up with veterans’ organizations after he left the Navy, but none of them seemed interested in veterans with emotional baggage from Vietnam, at least not back in the ’70s.

So Sunday will be a conflicted day. It’s important to many, but I also remember Grandma’s stories, and the pictures of great-grandfathers and great-uncles in uniforms, looking so proud — and so German.

I remember my father and other Vietnam veterans coming home, feeling abandoned by their government and condemned by civilians.

While Veterans Day is important and probably meaningful for others in ways it will never be meaningful for me, I think it’s far more important to remember veterans all 365 days of the year, especially on days without bands playing patriotic marches and speeches by politicians. And not because of those implausibly long lists of things veterans are alleged to have done for us that circulate this time of year.

We need to honor those men and women for two things: risking death and learning how to kill in the service of their country. We can never fully repay them for these darker parts of military duty; we can, however, keep their sacrifices in mind when they search for civilian jobs or want to go to school, and as we pay for their medical care and pensions.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.