I have a childhood friend — moved next door to her in first grade — who just lost her mother. When she called with the news we got to reminiscing about our shared history from 1959 through the early 1960s on a modest north Spokane street. I observed how we have perspective toward our parents now that we didn’t have then. The years draw us farther from that time, but our life learning brings us closer to the kinds of things our mothers and fathers might have been facing — details kids’ eyes aren’t built to see.
The talk shifted from my friend’s mother to her father. I remember he had a temper. That you had to walk kind of careful around him. I think we were all a little afraid sometimes. Yet I also remember how with his big booming laugh he welcomed young airmen stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base into his home weekend afternoons.
Long after Frank was gone I learned some of the story I never knew as a neighbor child. Frank was in the Army — a gunner on a tank in World War II — just fifteen years before I first met him. He survived the Battle of Normandy, where 425,000 Allied and German troops were either killed, wounded, or went missing. After that, as the war was winding down — on guard duty one night — he warned off an enemy soldier who kept coming. He shot and killed him, but that soldier turned out to be just a young teenage boy.
My friend and I talked about PTSD — Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. She said her dad “self-medicated” — and without rancor called him a “functioning alcoholic.” She and I didn’t see all this back then. Only that he could flare up quickly.
How much wiser we are now. Maybe that’s why a line from a superb novel — this month’s selection for our local library’s reading group — leaped from the page. “A Man Called Ove” — set in Sweden — is about a gruff curmudgeon who beneath his sandpaper exterior has a surprisingly open heart.
The line I recognized as so true is this, “And if you don’t know the story, you don’t know the man.” People won’t always let us know the story. But you can bet there is one.