Monday, June 27, 2011

Hidden Histories

My Uncle David Johnston is my mother's younger brother. A big man in his mid-80's, David's many health problems are catching up with him. Garrulous and loud - like most members of the Johnston clan - intelligent and witty, David can regale visitors for hours, without a visitor getting a word in edgewise.

Some of those stories would surprise anyone looking at the aged, sickly old man might surprise you. Others would shock you. See, when David joined the Marine Corps right out of high school, his aptitude tests were off the charts. After boot camp he went to Special Intelligence School.

See, David was a spook.

In the mid-1950's, newly married, David and his lovely bride Billie lived in Columbus, OH where David worked while attending Ohio State University. He returned home one day to find a strange car parked catty-corner from his house, a man slumped down in the front seat. David snuck around the corner, entering his house from the backdoor and told Billie to call the police. He left the way he entered, only this time he was armed. He came up behind the car, making sure the driver wasn't looking in the mirror, then yanked the door open and dragged out the man sitting behind the wheel, pinning him to the ground and putting his sidearm in the guy's face just as the police pulled up.

David had managed to wrangle a police detective staking out a possible house of ill-repute up the street from where David and Billie lived (must have been a great neighborhood). David told the police officers that they needed to move their stakeout.

Why did he react this way?

Because he was a spook.

There are so many stories out there, far too many we will never hear first-hand, because those involved, while living, were ordered never to speak. Then, long past the point when silence made little difference, they took their secrets to the grace with them. One was David's (and my mother's) oldest brother, Eugene Johnston. Junior entered the Navy on December 8, 1941, then after boot camp at Great Lakes, disappeared. His wartime service was a blank slate until he, like David, became elderly and the pressure of all that forgetting became too much. He and David shared their stories with one another (including Junior revealing that he knew about David's secret marriage because he lost his security clearance over it; long story) until, a couple years ago, Junior passed away. Lost with him are so many stories that fill in the details not so much of his life, but of our understanding of how we Americans conducted the war.

I got thinking about all these lost stories after reading this story in today's Washington Post. One huge takeaway from this story, as well as David's and Junior's, is thinking carefully about those elderly folks we see, and often complain about. They drive slow. They walk slow. They seem to need so much more, which confronts us with our own mortality and the price we may pay for getting older.

Yet, so many of them hold secrets that might shock us. Or scare us. Or leave us in awe. We need to remember, as Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" passes from this earth that so many of them carry around stories of horror and heroism, of duty fulfilled and cost paid, that many of us younger folks can barely imagine. We need to remember that the next time grumble about some old guy driving too slow down the road, or tottering in front of us in the Mall, slowing us down in our dire need to get to Aeropostale. We owe our roads and malls, the very fact of our on-going life as a nation, to folks who did all sorts of things about which we will never know.

Virtual Tin Cup

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