He didn’t tell war stories.
My grandfather was the best storyteller, ask anyone, but he didn’t tell war stories. No harrowing descriptions of the Battle of the Atlantic, of 20-foot swells, of what it sounds like when the guns breathe fire on the deck. No stories of the unbearable fear of your body sinking to the bottom of the black ocean, never to be found, drifting down into the cold away from everything you were ever going to be, away from your wife, your children. No stories about the stomach lurch of thinking you are caught dead to rights.
Instead, his life in the Navy was fodder for jokes and good humor, and I loved him for it. The fish soup he ordered somewhere in the East and the eyeball that floated to the surface when the bowl was set in front of him. The sign that hung in the main bathroom: “I’m the captain and what I say goes! And the first thing I say is listen to my wife — she’s the admiral.” The one about the lifeboat exercise: “Lifeboat #9, do you require assistance?” “Captain, we don’t have a Lifeboat #9.” “Really? Lifeboat #6, do you require assistance?” My grandmother and the children going for a dinner on the ship when he came to port and my uncle complaining, “How come Dad is so rich and we’re so poor?”
“Red sun at night, sailor’s delight. Red sun at morning, sailor take warning.” I can hear him say those words.
I don’t know what Papa did with his war stories. Maybe he felt it was inappropriate to share them with grandchildren. Maybe they seeped out in moments I wasn’t around. Maybe he exchanged them with other veterans. Or maybe he just kept them to himself. What I tell myself is that the war stories were the fuel that fed the bright, shining life that he seemingly willed into existence every day. He had seen firsthand the worst of humanity but had also been a part of its best, and he had chosen to live out his life trying to tip these crude scales.
Maybe not. But those memories were in him somewhere, and whether they were a source of pride or sadness or guilt or more likely an incomprehensible mixture of sensations and emotions that changed with the seasons, they would not have been immune from the disease that ate away at his mind. I often wonder if the war stories went early on, or if perhaps they stayed with him, ragged and riddled, until the very end.