For the things we save; for the things that make us who we are. And for my uncle, my dad, and millions
of others who lived through extraordinary times and went on to live very ordinary, honourable lives.
These are the things in Uncle Johnnie’s box. The things saved, the things
left behind when he died at 91. Or maybe he was 92. (We weren’t close)
Dad’s older brother, the one who’d quit school at 14 and went to work
to support the family. The one who became, for a time, tyrannical
boss of the house. Still in the end he was alone, and his Arizona
nursing home mailed this small, battered wooden box of things,
mailed it to my dad. And then it came to me. After Dad died.
These things, now mine:
A telephone book with faded names and numbers of insurance companies,
drugstores, long-dead friends from Miami, Brooklyn, Long Island, Queens.
A number for the time of day and temperature in Phoenix. And one for
C & T Fashions on West 36th Street, the factory where he worked
for 40 years, sewing ladies coats. A partly torn snapshot of his wife
and a tarnished bracelet engraved with her name: Mollie.
And also these:
His 1945 Honorable Discharge, listing his height as 5’3”, weight 120 lbs,
so small he could squeeze into the nose cone of a B-24 bomber, out there
gunning in mid-air, a perfect little target, trapped in a tight space
with the insane roar of the plane’s engines making clear thought
impossible, which was probably good. (I never asked)
Souvenirs from the battles of Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes,
Rhineland. He flew 30 missions, Dad said. Or maybe it was 20.
(I wasn’t listening)
His European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign medal, a British Army pin,
his Army of India medal. His dog tags on a crude silver chain. A photo of him
in full bomber gear, and one where he’s dressed as a Scottish Highlander.
(I don’t know why)
Last, a silk escape map of France, Spain and Portugal. In case
he was shot down, wandering alone in an unfamiliar land. (I guess)
Folded over twice, creased, muted, still intact.
When I was a child Uncle Johnnie visited only on holidays. He was loud,
argumentative, mostly deaf. From the war, Dad said. (It meant nothing to us)
He had no time for kids and mocked our excitement with Christmas trees
and presents and Santa. He seemed mean, clipped, harsh to us who knew
nothing about him, nothing really.