As a child, I loved the Fourth of July.
It meant loading the blue Plymouth Voyager with beach balls, lawn chairs, sunblock and sand pails, and one of a progression of lovable golden retrievers who would, inevitably, drool all over the back window. Driving four hours (eternity!) to Manchester-By-The-Sea, to be greeted by Uncle Linc’s gruff, booming “HIYA, KID!” making the rounds of great aunts and grandparents before escaping to the yard to run in dizzying circles with cousins until it got too dark even to catch fireflies. The long weekend a blur of beaches, sunburns, swimming, fireworks, childlike frenetic energy fueled by orange soda and one too many hotdogs. And the annual parade, which became fun once I was old enough to shed my terror of loud noises and scramble for the candy flung from municipal fire trucks, sweets to trade and unwrap and consume with single-minded intent as the bands and the flags marched past.
Always, too, there was a cadre of older men marching in the parade. Some ambled amiably along, others marched like they’d done it many times before, and a chosen few got to ride in buffed and polished classic cars. Some were our fathers’ ages, some were as old as Uncle Linc, and some (impossible!) seemed older yet. Yet when a flag went by, you could see their spines stiffen just a bit and there was a little more purpose in their amble or their stride. And if you could take your eyes from the parade (or from your candy) you might see, here or there in the crowd, another older man standing a little bit straighter, giving a salute eagerly copied by his grandchildren.
Not infrequently, they and their wives would be squinting a little bit. Holding back tears.
As years went by, we got to understand the concept of veterans, and of course we wondered if there were any in our family. Our grandparents were the World War II generation, and had many stories to tell. Grampy Gillett was in the Army, doing something unglamorous but necessary with horses in India. A cousin’s grandfather had been a fighter pilot. Uncle Linc went to the Pacific with the Navy and came home to talk about it (though he never did, to my recollection); Great-Grand-Uncle Ned did the same and was lost in a great battle off Guadalcanal. And the great-aunts and grandmothers all remembered What It Was Like In Wartime. We heard these stories, sat through a tale or two of Gompy in the Great War, and went back outside to play croquet. We were kids, and that was History.
If there was ever a mention of a Marine back in those days, I missed it. Thinking back, there must have been. Family gatherings were (still are) the domain of the trio of Wood sisters–Frances, Katherine and Elizabeth, better known as Fran, Kitsy, and Betsy–and he was their cousin. And at some point I met another Wood cousin–”Big Gretchen,” so called to differentiate from my sister–and knew that she had a harder time at the Fourth of July than the rest of her generation. Something to do with her brother. Eventually I found out that he, too, had gone to war and not come home. It was sad, but it was also History.
And so ten or twelve or fourteen years passed. Until my uncle Hamilton sent me a manila envelope of photocopied letters, and I read the words “Dear Girls” and got to meet Phil Wood–the Marine, the cousin, the brother who never came home.
He was my age. Loved literature, writing and the theater. Had a little sister named Gretchen. Saw his country going to war and disapproved. And somehow, made the meteoric transition from peaceable collegiate to committed Marine officer, a warrior who managed to hold onto his principles. Principles which led to his death in a field on a far away island called Saipan, because he couldn’t turn his back on the helpless–and led to the deaths of some of his men, because they couldn’t turn their backs on him.
It was July 5, the day he died. And it clicked, finally, why that holiday was so hard on Big Gretchen. Why he was rarely mentioned by his cousins. Because he might have been marching in that parade, or quietly saluting on the sidelines, standing right next to them.
I was once told by one of my professors that history never repeats. It echoes. And the job of the historian is to muffle or to amplify those echoes.
Phil was an amplifier. Although he could be maudlin and dramatic (he was, after all, a young man in his early twenties), every event was to be learned from and built upon. His life twice shattered by death and desertion, he stolidly rearranged the pieces, and was in the process of making a new shape when his letters abruptly ended in June, 1944. And his recounting of the battle of Namur was so unusual and breathtaking–pages of harsh reality slipped by the censors–that he hoped “to tell the tale of the next one” in similar fashion, but that plan died with him. Had he lived to write that story, or those of Tinian and Iwo Jima, how different might our history be? There may be no changes, but there would be new details and impressions. Amplification.
The late 1940s were a muffler. Big Gretchen, custodian of Phil’s letters and memory she wanted desperately to have them published. To amplify her brother’s writing. But nobody wanted war stories. And so, in her efforts to get the story out, she cut large portions. Names were changed to protect the innocent and the guilty alike. Bad habits were excised. Personal failings disappeared. Gretchen was a masterful editor, but in building her brother’s memory, some parts of him disappeared. Muffled.
The echoes remain, and they always will. Every Independence Day, even when I’m not with my family. Big Gretchen is no longer with us. Nor is lovely Aunt Kitsy, or handsome Uncle Linc. Cousins are married with families. A new generation of youngsters races around the yard, overdoses on ice cream, waits breathlessly for fireworks, goes to the parade where they can catch candy and watch the older men–some their father’s age, some as old as Great-Grandpa Linc–march down the road or salute from the sidelines.
I still love the Fourth of July, and I always will.
But the Fifth echoes louder every year. And it always will.