Author’s Note: As we approach the observation of Veterans Day (U.S.) – aka Remembrance Day or Armistice Day – an article in keeping with the spirit of the season is offered to you, dear readers, for your consideration. P.K.
N.B. This article, dear readers, is a “crafted” article.
While, yes, it’s “hand-crafted” on the virtual keyboard of my tablet (and physical keyboards on laptops when the tablet screams, “Low Batt!”), that’s really not the “crafting” to which I refer.
“Intellectually crafted?” Maybe, in part. There are some who would argue, however, whether that first word’s use is being truthfully descriptive. Still, no, that’s not “the” craft involved here.
This article is crafted as a “maybe.” Maybe – as in, “maybe yes,” or “maybe no.” It’s purposefully written as an enigma of sorts. The boundary between fiction and non-fiction is the stage upon which I tap dance, with neither element being assigned specific, physical locations.
Like being in a multiple-canopied rainforest (to this day, I still call it “jungle”) without a compass or map, it’s near impossible to ascertain which side of a boundary you’re on, let alone whether or not you are crossing any boundaries.
It’s not 100% fiction, then, and it’s not 100% non-fiction. I am certain that elements of both are contained herein. But, just how much of one, or of the other, is a question comparable to asking where, exactly, lay the boundaries. Perhaps one day, the ratio may be adjusted to better favor the non-fiction tray of the balance. Until then, dear readers, your humble scribe must “stick with the balance of what he now writes.”
School children of the mid-1950s were a hardy group – physically and mentally. Schoolboys tended to outwardly exhibit this hardiness; schoolgirls strongly held it within, able to display it at a moment’s notice, but preferring to be seen in a more “elegant” light. But, hardy they were, both boys and girls.
As a schoolboy in the mid-1950s, I can only speak to schoolboy mannerisms and behaviors, leaving those of schoolgirls to the readers’ (and schoolboys’) imaginations.
In displays of hardy bravado, schoolboys were not afraid of answers they might receive to their questions. If it entailed “blood and guts,” so much the better. To be identified as “manly” was most schoolboys’ immediate goal in life. The commonly shared desire was to be “just like Dad.”
So it was, at practically every dinner table, that one question would be asked of the family patron by the young Chevalier: “What did you do in the War, Dad?” It didn’t much matter what the details of the answer were. What mattered the most was that there was an answer.
Armed with their precious, machismo-building answers, schoolboys would often lose themselves in thought, imagining that they, too, were there in the War, alongside their fathers, doing whatever it was that was being done, but now with strength and determination multiplied by “two.” They, too, were putting an end to the world’s miseries. They, too, were winning the War.
Many Dads answered with a terse response; wanting more to forget than remember. They stoically kept the details locked inside them. Dads had endured, in their own assignments and in their own ways, a “Hot” war, full of all its marvels and mischiefs, complete with its every disaster and its every miracle. And now, the schoolboys did, too.
FAST-FORWARD, 30 YEARS
The schoolboys of yesteryear are now the Dads of today. “Hot” wars of yore have been replaced by a “Cold” war. Just as in any War, marvels, mischiefs, disasters and miracles are “all present and accounted for.” Unlike with “Hot” wars, many choose not to be associated at all with a “Cold” war. Gone are the “Hot” war’s desirable banners and accolades of long ago youth. In their place was tepid conformity resulting from a lack of desire to do much more. It was, after all, a “Cold” war – no glory there. Yet, the fear of the inevitable day that the “one question” would be asked was stronger than at any time before.
Most, but not all, Dads still had various assignments that they still endured in their own ways during the “Cold” war, but it wasn’t the same anymore. Childhood Chevalier dreams of being “just like Dad” had been supplanted by being “just like [ fill-in your favorite sports figure, entertainer, etc. ].”
Hardiness in schoolchildren is now measured by different benchmarks, trending more toward the intellectual than the physical. A phenomenon labeled “helicopter parenting” released schoolchildren from the pains of childhood experiences and childhood consequences, alike. Sentiments such as “intrigue” and “glory” have been replaced by “total security” and “tolerance.” In short, schoolboys now are no longer “allowed to be boys,” as if doing so was a plague to eradicate.
Yet, that “one question” did, one day, get asked.
NOT WHAT ONE EXPECTED
Well, maybe not that “one question” verbatim, but a question that, regardless of its age, was related to that “one question” of so long ago. The person handling the inquiring line wasn’t the same young Chevalier cast member of the oft-played scene, either.
Traveling from an international airport and heading back to the familiar stomping grounds of schoolboy days, tonight’s performance of the father-son bonding skit was definitely off script. It did feature a reprise of characters, however: the Dad of the mid-1950s was now on stage with the Dad of 30 years hence.
The wisdom of age stunned the new-found wisdom of youth with the show-stopping line, now modified and re-edited for an “R-rated” audience. With perfect delivery of the line, a true connection between the Dads was forever forged.
“So, …, ah …, did you, … See the Elephant?”
Overwhelmed with the memories of the long ago dinner table sound stage, and with those of a not-that-long ago venue, the unscripted reply took the form of a long, slow nodding of the head, accompanied by a deep, from the soul, sigh. Then, with near-perfect theatrical timing, a barely audible, “Yeah.”
Both Dads understood the depth of the moment. One, who spent decades trying to forget, and one, who was just beginning his voyage into forced forgetfulness, both knew and silently admitted to themselves and to their newly found comrade, that the memories can’t be wished away.
“Can I ask where? I know, …, ah, …,” now stumbling lines continued. “I know you weren’t there, …, ah, …, officially, that is.”
Yes, “officially” – that was the correct, proper, descriptive word to say. Officially, the younger Dad wasn’t there, nor were those, who “didn’t accompany” the younger Dad, there, either.
Barracks humor had a way to deal with this situation. A funny-sounding but almost truthful answer to the “Where?” question would be created by those in need of a response. This they’d tattoo in their memories and use when “needing an out” from a conversation that they preferred not to have.
The moment was apropos. “Village of Noh Phun in Ho Phuc province.”
With a slight mist circling his eyes, the mid-1950s Dad now knew it was time for a new topic of discussion. He understood the barracks’ influence on the words he’d just now heard, and he also knew that both Dads now shared memories of a darker kind. His long-held fears, at that moment, had been confirmed.
His young Chevalier had, indeed, “Seen the Elephant.”
“Seeing the Elephant” is a phrase used during the 19th and 20th Centuries. This Victorian Era convention of “turning a phrase” allowed conversationalists to directly discuss topics that were thought to be too sensitive for direct discussion and thus relegated to indirect mention at best. The intent was saving audiences and speakers alike from embarrassment or unintended ill will.
To “See the Elephant,” then, didn’t describe sighting a pachyderm. It expressed one’s personal involvement – usually adverse – with something as metaphysically immense as an elephant. Most commonly in the American experience, “Seeing the Elephant” meant “Facing Immense Adversity.”
During America’s 19th Century expansion, this phrase was used to describe the hardships and adversities of crossing the Great Plains – the “Great American Desert” – searching for a better life. The overland voyage was extremely taxing, physically and mentally. Keeping recollections of many distasteful experiences to a minimum, and keeping storytellers from being overcome mid-story by anguish, the “Elephant” was the alternate target for the psychological blows being endured.
During the American Civil War, and during the wars that followed, speaking directly of adversities either experienced or expected, could trigger episodes of “battle fatigue” (now called PTSD – “Post Trauma Stress Disorder”) or set off a wave of desertions. To admit to “Seeing the Elephant” or to say one’s “Going Off to See the Elephant” was admitting to “having been in combat” or “lamenting upcoming combat,” and stemmed undesirable consequences.
Ironically, another Elephant-related phrase materialized circa this time and approached human behavior from a different direction.
Unlike one witnessing immense adversity and “Seeing the Elephant;” one, who cannot recognize something that’s obvious, especially something immensely obvious, “Can’t See the Elephant in the Room.”