By Julie Titone
I remember it as a bedtime story, my dad recounting how he flew over Europe and looked down on a mountain lake. The reflection of the night sky was so perfect that he became disoriented. He was flying over the moon.
John Titone served in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a co-pilot on a B-17. When his nine kids were young, he told us precious little about his experiences in World War II. The memories he did share were simple, like the fact that the English grew Brussels sprouts between runways. And where were those giant tin-can American bombers going when they lifted off between the vegetables, laden with deadly cargo? Before I studied history, my only clue was a map of Europe painted on Dad's leather bomber jacket. Every mission was marked on it.
As co-author of a war memoir, I've thought a lot about the power of story and how it can help combat veterans. Grady Myers regaled his friends with the stories that went into our book, "Boocoo Dinky Dow: My short, crazy Vietnam War." There's not a doubt in my mind that with his humor -- sometimes dark and ironic, sometimes wise-crackling -- Grady was coping with his memories of being a machine gunner. Tell the good stuff often enough, and the kill-or-be-killed stuff loses some of its power.
Yes, Grady nearly died in battle. But he survived to participate in hospital hijinks and to buy that classic Thunderbird he was lusting after. An artist, he drew engaging pictures of his time as a reluctant but able warrior. Among his works that have been displayed at the National Veterans Art Museum, a whimsical one featuring a monkey was a crowd-pleaser. We all need comic relief.
Almost every vet's experience includes good stuff: adventure, friendships, confidence-building, pride.
"In many ways, that year was very exciting," says a friend who suffers from war-related stress 50 years after he was in Vietnam. "We were young, in great physical condition and full of piss and vinegar. We were in a very beautiful and exotic land with a culture none of us could have imagined. And we did things we would never tell our mothers, and survived. Even the real bad times had a positive edge because you never feel more alive than when you are close to death."
Another friend told me his Vietnam service was the best year of his life. He might have exaggerated, but I don't think by much. His eyes glowed when he talked about the problem-solving involved with being a Marine mechanic in a combat zone. "It was something new every day. Every day." He came back in one piece but had a close brush with death-by-military-vehicle. It's a story he tells with relish, probably because no one else died, either.
I'm writing this on Veterans Day. I can't think of a better gift for people who has served in the military, in combat or not, than to let them know you'd like to hear their stories. Just open a space in the conversation. Did anything funny happen to you? Any buddies you'd like to see again? Whatever happened to those pictures you brought back?
My father has outlived his bomber jacket, which was loved a bit too much by one of his sons. When asked, Dad will recall his time in the service. He told me how he fell off an airplane wing during training and broke his thumb, which delayed his deployment (I may well owe my existence to that accident). And how sick he got on the heaving troop ship that brought him back to the States. With the war in Europe over, he expected to be sent to the Pacific. The Japanese surrendered before that happened (I may owe my existence to that, too).
Grady was telling stories up until his death in 2011. Even the serious war episodes, as he told them, didn't feel like a burden to listeners. I think the smiles of his audience brought some measure of peace to his good heart.
Julie Titone is co-author of the Grady Myers memoir "Boocoo Dinky Dow: My short, crazy Vietnam War." Grady was an M-60 machine gunner in The U.S. Army's Company C’s 2nd Platoon, 1st Battalion, 8th Regiment, 4th Infantry Division in late 1968 and early 1969. His Charlie Company comrades knew him as Hoss. Thoughts, comments? Send Julie an email.