Home After Dinner

On the publication of The Odyssey of Echo Company, I’m thinking of this essay I wrote about remembering and forgetting. During the writing of all of my books, I’ve learned that, most of all, people want to know that someone is listening and, this is the tricky part, remembering. The importance of these two acts, as acts of kindness and citizenship, have been on my mind since childhood, because of this story my father told me. And the story was on my mind as I was writing my new book.

THIS is a story about remembering and forgetting.

It involves my father, who was 5 at the time, and who is 74 now. And it involves me, who was 8, when I first heard it.

Leonard Dailey had a brother named R.L., who ran the bait shop on the Hersey River where the main road out of Reed City crosses the river. This was the last place I remember seeing my grandfather alive, except for the hospital room right after he’d had his heart attack, but on this day, by the river, he is wearing a slouch hat and his glasses and I can barely hear him above the roar of the water over the dam’s spillway. All I remember now is him waving at us, telling my father something like: He would be home in a little while, maybe after dinner.

If you drive north out of Reed City on that road you can still see the building that housed R.L.’s old shop, only the river is a placid little thing, a brown oily ribbon that flows around the edge of town. The last time I saw my grandfather was the last time I remember seeing the river, because shortly after, that summer, the dam blew out and the river went down and all I remember was that after my grandfather died, the river seemed to have disappeared, too.

Where do we go when no one remembers us? If we do not tell what we know and do not pass it on, where does the knowledge go?

These are the questions that I think were plaguing my father the day he first told me about Leonard Dailey. One day when he was 5, my grandmother had tied my father to the towering willow in the front yard of their little house on Bittner Avenue on the east edge of Reed City. The war was on and his two uncles, his mother’s brothers, were in Europe fighting. The world, you could say, seemed a smaller place — a place where you could tie your child up with soft rope to a tree in the yard and no one would think you were being cruel.

My grandmother was in the house. Across the road was dad’s grandmother’s house as well. It was, as I say, a small world.

My father was sitting there with his rope when up the road came this handsome man in a crisp Army uniform. He had a girl on his arm. The man scooped down over the fence, picked up my father, untied him and went into the house to ask my grandmother if he could take him along for the day.

She said yes. Leonard told her they were going to the county fair. What my father remembers of that day is lost in mist, the way my own memory is lost in the mist of the river as I see my grandfather — his father — standing there on the bank, by the dam. What my father does remember is the fine time he had with Leonard and his girlfriend. At the end of the day, Leonard delivered him back to the yard. After that day, he never saw Leonard again.

In fact, he rarely thought of Leonard. He remembers asking his mother one day when he was a teenager, “Whatever happened to Leonard Dailey?” “Oh,” said his mother, “he died. In the war. Shortly after that day you saw him.”

It struck him that he had forgotten Leonard for all those years and in some ways this, too, had been a kind of death — as if Leonard had died two times: once in the war and once in my father’s memory.

Shortly after that, my father was sitting in 12th grade English class when he got up to sharpen a pencil and look out the window. It was spring. The sun was shining. In a year he would be in Alaska, in the Army, and in three more years, married to my mother. His whole life was ahead of him, but he could see none of it yet.

Up the street came a green tractor pulling a hay wagon bearing a casket draped in a flag. Some veterans from World War II were walking alongside as the wagon bumped along. This was the late 1950s, years after the war. My father asked the teacher what the parade was about, and she said it was the body of a boy finally coming back from the war. He had been killed in Africa all these years ago. My father knew it was Leonard Dailey. He just knew.

But where, my father wondered, had Leonard been all these years when my father had not thought of him? That night, his mother confirmed what he’d already guessed. It was the body of Leonard Dailey, coming home.

That’s why I think my father has always told me this story, as a way of saying, “Be the kind of person who remembers others, and who is remembered.” He has never said that out loud, but the meaning is implied it’s inside the story, the way music seems to come from inside the piano, all at once, from everywhere, and from nowhere in particular.

Where do we go if we are not remembered? The truth is, we are forgotten, and there is nothing to be done about that — except by this act of conjuring, this remembering, which burns brightly as long as these sentences last.

Sometimes when I am alone in the woods, or when I’m writing, I can hear the music. I feel as if I’m telling the story, or a story, to arrive at that music, in a sunlit clearing where someone is playing, and that in the clearing it’s suddenly quiet, and I can hear a voice — my grandfather’s again — talking to me down by the river, telling me, don’t worry, that he would be home after dinner.

This story was first published in Grand Traverse Scene in the April/May 2013 edition.

Doug Stanton is the New York Times best-selling author of In Harm’s Way and Horse Soldiers, which is the basis for a movie by the same name starring Chris Hemsworth and Michael Shannon, to be released in January 2018. Stanton’s new book, The Odyssey of Echo Company: The 1968 Tet Offensive and the Epic Battle to Survive the Vietnam War, will be published September 19. He grew up in Traverse City, attended Traverse Heights School and is a founder of the National Writers Series.