The other night at dinner my stepdad told us about cousin Eddie* and how he’d gone off to Vietnam, drafted, served his year and a day, and came back different. My seven-year-old, who likes to play war and hear about war and know what’s happened, returned to the table, ears open. Each time we have one of these conversations about war, my mother makes sure to tell him that war brings damage; we shouldn’t go to war, better to avoid it. “But what if we have to go to war?” my son asks. Usually we’re talking about the distant past, about Pearl Harbor, about the Battle of Britain, about decisions already made.
What I tell him isn’t so much different from his grandmother’s admonitions, but part of me is thinking about how much simpler it can be to have an enemy, a cause, to know the difference between good and bad—the way we can look at World War II, not the murkiness that followed in Vietnam—and, no matter what, it can feel good to have comrades, to have instructions and rules, to know which things matter. These are realities, in his seven-year-old world, he may understand better than I do: in his world one way, with his toy soldiers and make-believe, and in ours another, with blood and grief and the difference so vast between life and death, yet traversable in a blink. There is the way adrenaline makes you strong and sure—and you become accustomed to adrenaline, and certainty. And the way, in the midst of all this, with certainty and chance and chaos so tightly wed, we need heroes. But sometimes, in a hero, we need different things.
At that same dinner table, my two sons, my family and me, two nights earlier: that was the first we’d heard of Eddie, back when he was still a boy. We heard how he and my stepdad and a couple of other young boys were having a sleepover in Eddie’s room, still some years shy of adolescence, after Korea, but before Vietnam. Before Kennedy was shot,when they all still lived in Detroit. The streetlight shone in from across the street, lit up the room.
It always does that, Eddie announced, and it keeps you from sleeping. Eddie, boss of the night, got his .22 and it only took him two or three shots till the bulb was blown out, the room dark. The boys were sure he’d be deep in it by the next day, but no one ever placed him as the culprit. Or they didn’t say anything if they did.
Before the war, Eddie was a happy kid, a young man with a ready grin. When he got back, he’d turned quiet and kept to himself. Said he was fine, if you asked. He learned to hunt with a bow and arrow, drawing out the Michigan hunting season from about ten days to more like three months. Out there in the woods, it was quiet; he went out on his own. Him and the deer.
This got us talking about the movie The Deer Hunter with Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken, and the other guy we couldn’t remember. I remember seeing it at age thirteen, on the tv in London, where we lived that year. Talk of the movie reminds me of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, particularly “Big Two-Hearted River,” one my stepdad mentioned a few weeks earlier.
All these stories, Eddie the boy and Eddie the man, the deer hunter and The Deer Hunter, Hemingway and his man in the woods, Nick, they’re about men alone. They’re about the silences and things we don’t tell, and about the stories nestled in each of us, many of the stories, like cousin Eddie’s, untold.
When we think of heroes, mostly we’ve got courageous acts and brave men, sometimes brave women, though women’s stories come up less, in war and outside it. We’ve got sacrifice, probably a life saved, a life lost. We have crisis—made momentary, sharp and clear. We have to blur the edges and focus only on what is crisp and clear, when we think about these heroes. When we have heroes, we have medals; we have front page newspaper stories; or tiny back of the section obits, a life reduced to mere sentences, the best we can find.
We seek heroes and find them, in the process retrieving clarity.
I don’t really know Eddie’s story, probably never will. If he were a hero with a medal, would I know it better? Medals and honors, overt ideals and spoken pride: these matter. We need them as identifiable and certain things, when so much of life is less certain and left to chance.
But if we need these clear heroes, we need just as much the heroes who remain unheralded. Ordinary people steeped in the specifics of their own circumstance, looking for meaning and a way to tell their stories. This is quiet bravery, the inspection of memory and the attempt to capture the past, often undertaken alone. And yet what stories do—other people’s stories, the events and words they struggled with, and sometimes even our own, put into whole sentences and pages—they make each of us less alone.
I can’t help but wonder whether Eddie the man wouldn’t have smiled a little more if more of his experience had been shared. Instead he kept fighting, maybe himself, maybe his memories, circling deer in the woods.
Now, we’ve got more recent wars too, new heroes needed to bring immediacy to new stories, tales not necessarily of valor, but memories seeking meaning. Whether sense is there or not, telling paves the path for creating it.
* Eddie is a pseudonym.