External Photo Clues:
Handwritten on the back : “Taken at Christmas when her Daddy was home. -1942-”
Mom and I were cleaning the garage the other day and came across my grandfather’s old “mess kit,” or at least that’s what she said he called it. An old, battered trunk, it contains all that’s left of his military service during World War II. It’s not much to memorialize such a full and tumultuous time in his life, but my grandfather tends to mostly live inside his own skin, not needing a lot of external “stuff” to anchor him to the world. You can’t come across something like that trunk, tucked away in a dusty corner, and not want to lift the lid, smiling over the contents as you call up memories of each artifact. Tucked away in the lid compartment, we found this photo taken in 1942 when my mother was a year and a half old.
“I don’t remember that Christmas. Not surprising. I was so young. Not many pictures left of me and Daddy from those years,” she said, cupping the photo in her hands. My grandfather was an Army officer, initially stationed in El Paso, Texas where he met my grandmother. Like all military families, they moved often.
“I learned not to get too attached to things,” she continued. “My toys often didn’t survive our moves. Boxes just disappeared, things broke. Mama always took it in stride, though. It came with the territory. You know, I think she was always just thankful that she still had her husband, what with the war on and all. So many of her friends didn’t,” she said. She smiled sadly, still looking at the photograph. Then she looked up at me.
“I never did like mules,” she began. I looked at her with a blank expression on my face wondering what mules had to do with anything.
“Daddy? Now, he had a special fondness for them. And what that meant for me and your aunt and uncle were summers traipsing through the wilderness on mule-back. Hiking, camping, fishing… and those darn mules!” She laughed. “I cannot tell you how many times I was bitten, stepped on, and squished into the sides of horse trailers. Daddy never did understand why I hated those trips. Most girls grow up wanting a pony, after all. That’s because they’ve never had to take care of the silly beasts!” Her eyes grew wistful and her smile faltered.
“You remember he grew up on a farm in Oregon, right?” I nodded. Elsewhere in storage were blurry black and white photos of my grandfather as a young man posing near a succession of farm implements, fences, hay bales… and mules. Mules had apparently always played a big part in my grandfather’s life. Their labor would have often meant the difference between eating and going hungry when he was a kid.
She looked back down to the photograph still cupped in her hands.
“You know, he was so close to dying in that war,” she said. “When he went to Fort Riley to train, one day these officers came and asked the boys in his platoon if any of them knew anything about mules. I mean, what a funny thing to ask, don’t you think? But he did, so they snatched him up right then and there, and from then on he became an Army mule handler.”
She dug deeper in the trunk, coming up with a small faded booklet, browning at the edges. An Army Field Manual. She and I sat on the cold garage floor and leafed through the booklet’s pages. Detailed inside were all the things an Army mule handler would need to know about how to train and care for his mule. Also, there were pages upon pages of the Army’s best guidance on how to load a mule for different types of terrain and what knots to use to secure their packs. Because that’s what mules did in the Army. They carried supplies into places that mechanized equipment couldn’t reach.
I had always known that my grandfather served during World War II. But with all the short-sightedness that comes from the certainty that my time is the most important time and that history is just that, I never asked questions, nor did my family ever talk about it. My mother remembered, though. And as she began to talk, dredging up fading, distant memories from a far-away childhood, I began to see why no one in the family ever brought up the topic.
“Daddy was on a ship, with his mule and all of his friends, when they dropped those bombs on Japan. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you remember?” I nodded.
I may not know everything about World War II, but no child of the 20th century doesn’t know about the cities that were razed to cinders in August of 1945 by two atomic bombs innocuously named “Fat Man” and “Little Boy.” So what my mother was telling me was this: my grandfather was almost part of the first wave of the invasion force of the Japanese islands, a suicide mission to be sure. “Almost” in such a really dreadful way, too. Hundreds of thousands of American servicemembers were going to die in that invasion and the planned island hopping campaign that was to follow.
And the mules and their handlers? No way could any mechanized force do the work that needed to be done in the rocky terrain of the Japanese island chain, so all of the gear and supplies the Army would need would be packed in on the backs of their soldiers and those humble, sturdy mules. It was because of the United States government’s alternate plan to force Japan to surrender that those soldiers and mules did not die on the shores of a foreign nation. Instead, they were brought back to the United States to disembark to a world in which World War II would soon be over.
All of the sudden it hit me, the thing that was bringing tears to my mother’s eyes as we sat on that cold concrete. A sort of survivor’s guilt. She had her father, I had my grandfather, but at what price? She wiped the tears away, looking up at me once more. A small smile crept back onto her face. “Let’s see what else is in here,” she said as she went back to the trunk.
About The Author:
Ynez Walske manages a non-profit higher education association from her office at the University of Oklahoma. This narrative of a conversation between the author and her mother is based on factual accounts of her grandfather’s service during World War II.
About The Imaginary Family Project:
The 2011 Imaginary Family Project is a year-long collective art endeavor coordinated by occasional amateur artist Quentin Bomgardner and co-sponsored by The Red Dirt Chronicles. This project is based around “lost” vintage photographs, which have been acquired at flea markets, garage sales, estate sales, and eBay – heirloom collections, with no heir. Every week a different author will “find” one photograph by creating an imagined history around one of its subjects. At the end of the year, the collection will be compiled and presented as a group.