With the honoring of Veteran’s Day this month, I am reminded of the power that a well-told story can wield.
War, since the beginning of mankind, has been recorded in stories. Those tales range from barbaric to heroic, from tragic to patriotic, reminding us that conflict brings out both the best and worst in people. They serve to warn, to inspire, to encourage.
We tell those accounts in an effort to remember, to honor; we also tell them in order that we may not forget the consequences of the past.
Stories may be our greatest asset when viewing the past, but they are also easily lost. In an attempt to commit these stories to memory, we too often let them fade into the bleak, unrelenting passage of time. As time continues its rhythmic, eternal march, the power of these images from the past erodes into an unmemorable, indistinct fragment of what was once told. But we must not let this happen, for far too much is at stake.
I first learned of a story’s power while still in high school. Through my parents, I became friends with a veteran in my town named Joe. A native North Carolinian born in the 1920s, Joe was already in his early nineties when we met. He spent his career as a pilot, training crews in World War II, flying in the Korean conflict, participating in the Vietnam War, and eventually working in Iran before the hostage crisis in 1979.
Even in his advanced age, Joe’s mind was sharp; the former pilot could recall memories from the past as if they took place yesterday. And like many veterans, Joe’s distinguished career was filled with vibrant stories — stories of sacrifice, dedication, duty, and honor. I would often visit Joe and sit on the couch in his living room, rapt with attention, as he told me the stories of a different time.
During World War II, Joe worked as a pilot instructor at the Santa Ana Air Base in California. One of the instructors at the camp was a major-league baseball player, also named Joe. His last name? DiMaggio.
As my elderly friend liked to recall, the beloved Yankees player would drive into camp every day in a small, bright-red convertible. “He had the skinniest legs I ever saw,” Joe liked to joke, motioning to his own legs, “but his biceps were as big as my thighs.”