Two of my second cousins were coming to visit us. I didn’t know what to expect.
It was 1946, and I was nine years old living on a farm in Wisconsin with my parents, my aunt and uncle, their two boys, and live-in hired hands. The house was crowded. I shared a small bedroom with the hired girl.
Before the war, Artie, one of the two brothers coming to see us had worked for my father and uncle as a hired farm hand. He was a nephew of my Aunt Louise, a nice guy in his late teens then, but we hadn’t seen him since 1940 when he was drafted into the army. We’d gotten a few short letters over the years, but weren’t told where he was or what he was doing in the war. None of us knew what Artie and his brother Orville would be like now after all these years, what they would look like.
Finally a battered old car pulled into the driveway, and two men got out. They walked up the hill to the farmhouse with our big German Shepard sniffing them and following. Did he recognize Artie? Is that why he didn’t bark when they got out of the car?
The day was overcast, gloomy, and threatened rain. We had no electricity, so even in early afternoon, the kitchen was rather dark. Even so, the kerosene lamp wasn’t lit, that was done only at dusk, when night was falling.
Artie and Orville entered the kitchen and stood quietly for a moment before sitting down at the kitchen table with the family. Throughout the visit, they didn’t say much. (Norwegian-Americans introverts can be silent, and it is socially acceptable, as there is usually at least one extrovert who loves to carry the conversation.) Nobody asked them about the war or what had happened to them. All we knew, and all we ever knew was that Orville had spent a couple of years in a German prisoner-of-war camp.
Both of the brothers were men now, not the teens that we had once known. Artie seemed healthier than Orville who was dark-skinned from the sun, thin, and kind of scrubby-looking. That’s about all I remember. They drank coffee and ate molasses cookies and home-made-bread bologna sandwiches, and then left.
As I was growing up, I saw Artie around town sometimes. He had started a taxi service with an old used car driving people between my hometown Westby and the next town Cashton where all the taverns were. It was a good thing to do as the drunks could be driven home instead of causing accidents on the curve in the highway near the small farm my father had purchased next to the larger farm where we had once lived with my aunt and uncle. Once in awhile we’d hear a big crash on the highway, my father would rush out to help while my mother called the sheriff in Viroqua. Artie’s business thrived.
I never saw Orville again. I heard that he was drinking heavily, but somehow he married and began to raise a family. Alcoholism was common in the countryside in those days, accepted stoically as a part of who one was. There was no help offered for it, and certainly nobody recognized PTSD if that’s what Orville had. If he pulled himself out of it, he did it on his own.
Whenever Memorial Day comes around, I think about Artie and Orville. To this day, I have no idea of what they experienced during those years somewhere in Europe during World War II. Whatever they did and whatever was done to them, it wasn’t and isn’t right to force those kinds of experiences on young men and women. Not to Americans, not to Syrians, Europeans, Africans, Asians, or to any of our world’s precious young people.
I remember our fallen soldiers on Memorial Day, but then I wonder about how to maintain the peace that they fought and died for, not just in America, but all over the world.