Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Finding the Focus of a Story

Ashley and Faye, Spokane, Washington, September 1944.

I'm close to wrapping up the last two weeks or so of my father's letters to my mother from the Western Pacific in the last year of World War II.

It has been quite a journey.  I've met my father as a 24-year-old puppy, and learned a great deal more about the one part of his overseas service during the war that he rarely talked about. The war part.

From contrasting his unit history with the letters themselves, I have learned that what little he did tell us was greatly sanitized--either intentionally, or by his own long repetition of the censored version he had framed to keep my mother from having to worry about it.

I learned from his unit history that the 1902 and the 1903 Engineer Aviation Battalions were in LSTs circling in the traffic pattern for a landing on Okinawa on Landing Day plus 18--the first echelon to go in following the infantry and marines. But someone--most likely General Buckner, who led the ground forces in the battle and coordinated the use of troops from the other services--decided the engineers wouldn't get much work done if they landed on Okinawa. Not then anyway.

It would be another 64 days before mopping up began on Okinawa, and General Buckner would not survive the battle.

So the 1902 and the 1903 EAB stayed on the landing craft another day and were sent over to Ie Shima as the second echelon there, where things were equally nasty, but more contained, since it was a smaller island. Ie Shima was the most mined island the Allies faced the the Pacific.

"Oh it was all mopped up by the time we landed," was the only thing my father would ever say about it.  Once, after I had done some research, I questioned this, but he just scratched his chin and said he didn't remember.

It was rough enough that several of his comrades didn't survive the landing.  Snipers, booby traps,  bombs.  Stuff like that.  The kind of thing that would stick in your mind.

But as I mentioned, one of my theories is that, since he had to create an alternate reality in his letters to my mother--he gradually began to believe it himself.  What the heck:  he was safely home.  If any engineers died in either of the units he worked with--well, they weren't infantry after all, so it must have been an accident.

From reading between the lines of his letters, I think he was pretty scared. That was a pretty big club back then.

Having read most of the letters now, I'm trying to find the right focus for the story.  Is it a great love story--since the romance lasted 65 years?  Is it a war story--about engineers, the unappreciated heroes?  Is it an epistolary documentary--about an eyewitness to an earthshaking time? Or is it about a daughter who finds herself traveling through time to meet up with her father when he was really young and she wasn't even born?

Maybe it is a combination. A writer has to find her voice before she can really zoom and my voice is often a humorous one when I talk about my parents the paragons.  I'm having trouble finding it right now because--though there is a lot of silliness in my father's letters--there is a great deal of drama going on around him.

Anyway, I'm working on that as I approach the end of phase one: the transcriptions.  You don't have to be a poet to know that in every true story, joy and sorrow, laughter and tears run pretty close together.

My father and mother were really lucky people.  In the middle of all that worldwide sorrow, they found each other and were able to live long and happy lives together.  Looking back, I wonder if they knew it? Perhaps that's the real focus of the tale.

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Don Meuler said...

An interesting dilemma. I wonder what your mom thought when she read his letters? Did she know how much he was downplaying the action around him? Do you think she ever dug into the historical records to the degree you have? I'm guessing once he was back home, they didn't talk about it too much.

Which is to say I have no idea which tack you should take. But it'll be fascinating reading however you approach it.

Robin Chapman said...

Good questions about my mother. She lived in pretend worlds a lot, and was so convincing in so doing, many of us found ourselves confused most of them time we were with her. How my father kept is head from swiveling all the way 'round is something that has always amazed me.

Devon C. said...

I think that the soldiers of war do want to shield their families from the horrors when they write home. Jeff's letters to me didn't go into the scary details nor did he much when he called me. Even though he was not in the front lines he saw some bad stuff. My dad tells us some of the funny things that happened during Viet Nam and when he did go further, he couldn't. Too disturbing, too many bad memories. Why do you want to tell your family about those awful things whether in person or by letter, or directly when asked 50 years later? They're memories a person doesn't want to bring to the forefront.

Robin Chapman said...

All that is true. Plus: I think parents don't sit down and give their children a "Brief History of My Life" and when they do talk about the past, kids kind of zone out. Until they get old and want to know!

Anyway, since I'm a reporter and historian I always want the truth--not the gory details as much as just,"well it happened. And I was sad ...." but people are very complicated. I think some find it easier to be open about the past than others.

Anway, I'm a little emotionally burned out from the letters, so I'm stepping back for a bit. Went shoe shopping yesterday. That really helps focus the mind!