Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Some Debts Are Payable

The Debt Unpayable

WHAT have I given,
Bold sailor on the sea,
In earth or heaven,
That you should die for me?

What can I give,
O soldier, leal and brave,
Long as I live,
To pay the life you gave?

What tithe or part
Can I return to thee,
O stricken heart,
That thou shouldst break for me?

The wind of Death
For you has slain life’s flowers,
It withereth
(God grant) all weeds in ours.

- F.W. Bourdillon

I was born on traditional Memorial Day. For many years as a child, I thought having a birthday on a holiday was special, made me different. I never gave much thought about the actual celebration reserved for May 30th, other than my own. Later, in a history class, I learned that the day was set aside to honor fallen soldiers, beginning with the Union soldiers of America's Civil War.

Hmmm. Perhaps not a terrific birthday; a day to remember Americans who died in battle.

Now, because of our uncanny way of twisting things to suit, Memorial Day is not always on the 30th - simply just the last Monday in May. Must keep those Daily Grinders in paid holidays (and yes, I grind, too).

On Monday, May 26th, merchants will fly flags and advertise big sales; picnic baskets will be the weapon of choice, and America grills! How many of us will pause to think of the reason for the day off, to give a moment of thanks to the men and women of our armed forces who never came home?

My own personal debt repayment has been a promise to myself to write up the story of a family member who suffered as a Japanese POW during WWII. I've mentioned him before, Other (pronounced "Oh-thur") Hufstutler. His fellow war buddies simply called him, "Huff". That story is in progress, and I hope to have it finished for publishing on Monday.

Part of the inspiration to write this story came from a friend, Mary Lee Coe Fowler, who blogs at "Full Fathom Five". Mary Lee recently became a published author of a biographical book about her father, Commander James Coe, a decorated World War II submariner. You can order it here from Amazon. You can find my own review at the Amazon site as well.

In an email to Mary Lee a few days ago, I remarked to her that I thought I was "in love" with Jim Coe and this was in no small part due to her ability to create something more than mere words typed on a page. Red Coe was surely a man who stood a little taller, shown a little more brightly among his peers, though he would protest this praise to the hills and back. I know without a doubt here is a father who would be busting over with pride to read his daughter's tribute, a homage not only to him, but to the men who served alongside him.

Until I started doing research on my own kin, I would seldom have thought to pick up a book about war. The virtual shelves at Amazon list a total of 205,289 nonfiction titles on the subject, and out of those numbers less than probably 5% are female authors (I didn't do the math, just estimating).

But who better to write terrific stories of war than women?

You get the facts, yeah sure, but the reader also benefits from the addition of insight, intuition, and characterization that only a woman can write; people become more than names, places more than landmarks, and war more than iconic memorabilia.

This daughter's story of her search for a father she never knew is heart-wrenching. Her words are poignant, her research impeccable. And suddenly, I can't turn the pages fast enough.

Full Fathom Five is not a fairy-tale, not a sugar-coated gush that's typically expected with some memoirs. It is more simply a loving presentation of a man who gave the ultimate price - his life for his country and family. While delving into old documents and histories, the author also shares her slow attitude changes about war and the men who fight in them. It takes a stand-up kind of person to admit they long carried a defective viewpoint, leftover platitudes of the Vietnam era. Every bit her father's daughter in this self-examination, she makes us peacenik hippies of the 60's and 70's do our own moral housecleaning.

There's no debt left on the ledgers for Mary Lee Coe Fowler, she's repaid it in full with this book.


Hokule'a Kealoha said...

Thank you for posting the true reason for Memorial Day. I think that the War Between the States is now considered politically incorrect to talk/write about, its never mentioned. Yet I think that many of the troubles of today are linked to the conflict.

joared said...

I look forward to your post about your relative who survived WWII.

I've read "Full Fathom Five," which took on special interest to me for several reasons, none the least of which was that I have a family member who was in the Submarine Service during WWII, so I've written some comments on my blog, too.

Your review is excellent, touching on what really makes this book an especially good read.

ML Coe Fowler said...

Yes, I'm biased, but this review is so clearly straight from the heart that I've got to praise it here, in public. It's written with such plain language, no show-offey big words or erudite phrases, that it has real credibility. There's no reaching here, and certainly no preening; it's clear and direct, and that makes it reverberate with accuracy and emotion.
And where did you get that poem? I've never seen it before; it so perfectly captures the feelings of vets I've talked with. They wonder why they got to live, while their brothers died. And they all, to a man, regard their lost comrades as better men than themselves. They ask themselves how they can ever repay their debt. That's why they're so somber at Memorial Day services and military funerals.
Pattie deserves recognition for making Memorial Day clear and profound here. This is not writing that can just be whipped off (although it has a momentum that makes it look effortless). Thank you, my dear, and Happy Birthday.