White marble crosses and stars of David fan out across the precisely groomed lawn. White on green. No families gather at the headstones. No messy floral bouquets to disturb the order and symmetry. As we step off the bus, a weight settles on my shoulders. Dread, melancholy—I’m not sure which. I hate cemeteries, especially military ones, all the pomp about dying for a just cause. Young people honored in death, so easily sacrificed in life. And after tracing Hitler’s rise to power in Munich and making a sad and gruesome pilgrimage to Dachau, I’ve had enough of fascism, war, and death.
This stop was not on our Best of Europe itinerary. Perhaps our young Dutch guide thought the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial would be a fitting example of both the worst and best of the continent. Surely, we’d appreciate the generosity of the Italian government in donating this land to the United States to compensate for the lives of the American soldiers who died to liberate their country from the Nazis during World War II. I’d rather have carried on to Rome.
We stand on the steps—twenty-eight Americans, including my husband, daughter, son-in-law and two teenage grandchildren. The cemetery docent points to a statue on a pylon high above us, a woman grasping olive branches, poised as if flying. “The Spirit of Peace,” he says. In the distance, a smaller sculpture rises, an American soldier standing guard over the graves. Peace and war, at opposite ends of the manicured field. In between, some 4,400 fallen fighters. Another war to end all wars, and the world is no closer to peace.
When I was growing up, all of our fathers had fought in the war, but few talked about it. Most of what we knew came from movies glorifying the heroics of our side and demonizing the German and Japanese enemies, the war a distant past fought and won in faraway places. Here is one of those places, the guide explains—the last great push to purge the Nazis from Italy. On the ground and in the air, the Allies joined forces to squeeze the Nazis farther and farther north, a crucial step toward breaching their heavily fortified defenses along the Apennine Mountains. Those who fell here were mostly the air crews—pilots, bombers, gunners.
The guide pauses to catch his breath. A fragment of memory shakes loose in my brain—from a long-lost photo album, a black and white picture of my dad. Young and thin with thick black hair, he stands in front of his plane with the rest of the flight crew. He was a gunner, dropping bombs and shooting directly at enemy planes in missions flown over France and Italy. Crammed in a turret, where it was unbearably hot. “Sick the minute I got on the plane,” he said. Vomiting while firing. Not long before he died, he took Mom to see the cities he visited, the places he helped liberate—Paris, Rome, and Florence.
Here, I realize. He fought here. In these skies. Over this land.
The docent gestures to a massive stone panel directly behind us, engraved with hundreds of names. The missing—never found, never returned—some 1,400 of them. My mind wanders to exploding planes, their occupants spilling from the sky with the aircraft, traces of matter that became rain, wind, soil, wildflowers, trees, and the river below.
Dad told me his plane was shot down. I don’t know where. Was it the plane in the picture or another? Did it crash, or did they land safely in a damaged plane? Were the details too painful for him to talk about, or was I too self-absorbed to care? He’s not around to fill in the gaps in my hazy memory. He could easily have been in one of these graves, or his name carved in stone, one of those missing in action. But he survived, returned home, married my mother, brought up three daughters who raised four children of their own.
My chin quivers. Tears spill down my cheeks. As the rest of the group wanders quietly among the graves, I hang back, ashamed of my tears, ashamed of not recognizing this place. Ashamed that until now, I’ve not thought of my father once during this trip. He died thirty-one years ago. This is the first time I’ve shed tears for him. Buried memories flood back: Dad’s hand steady in mine as he taught me to ice skate, the two of us setting up a tent in the back yard so my friends and I could camp outside, the tenderness with which he cared for my mom when she was bedridden.
Tears now course down my neck as I recognize how arrogant I was, forgetting those tender moments in favor of living a life different from his—more intellectual, worldly, exciting than the one I believed he had lived. I was uninterested in the lessons my father wanted to convey and in the few stories he was willing to tell. I wanted to make my own way. He had dropped out of high school; I was determined to attend college. My young adult world of college, anti-war protests, and the sexual revolution was as alien to him as the music and culture of my grandkids are to me. We argued through those years: me full of myself, discovering a new geographic and intellectual landscape, so much more sophisticated than my family; him wanting me to understand what he had fought for, the price of my comfortable life. I don’t know what else he really wanted from me, but I was certain I’d fallen short of what he thought I should be.
A post-war child, I have no way of knowing how battle changed him. He was an anxious man, an alcoholic, a man often not at peace. I don’t know how much of his anxiety stemmed from growing up in a family of ten kids during the Great Depression or how much came from what he went through in the war. But I know that every time our family traveled by air, my father transformed into an angry, agitated man I didn’t recognize, screaming at airline staff when schedules went awry, tossing luggage, swearing at my mother. Was he thinking of the missions he flew in the war? There was no name for PTSD then. No acceptance that trauma from so long ago could linger a lifetime and no way to heal from it.
Dad enlisted in the Army Air Corps at seventeen, the age of my grandson today, a boy who does not yet even shave. Dad’s parents gave their grudging permission, he said. He was a bread winner in a family of twelve. His absence, and that of his older brother, also fighting, must have caused considerable hardship, especially since their father worked as a surveyor away from home for months at a time.
Once I found a stash of letters Dad sent to my mom while he was away at war, written on tiny bits of wispy paper, sections of sentences blacked out by censors. The tenderness and longing of two young people in love embarrassed me. I put the letters away and never looked at them again. If we as children allowed ourselves to see how vulnerable, how human our parents are, how could we break away? I see the same in my grandchildren. The boy challenging, goading, pushing until his father blows up and yells. The girl screaming, crying, blaming her mother for whatever goes wrong in her life. This is the hard work of leaving the nest. If we are lucky, we all survive.
While I was growing up, Dad would grow depressed at Christmas. He hated Christmas music. It reminded him of the war, how they played old songs and carols in the barracks, making him desperately homesick. I discounted his memories, angry that he drank so much more during the holidays.
I glance back at the rows of white on green, thinking of the seventeen-year-old boy whose life was changed forever by what happened here, his youth given over to the arrogance of war so I could live safe and free. He must have been hurt that I did not appreciate how he managed to survive, how he managed to keep going.
I rejoin my family, none of whom know that their history is bound to this ground. My father died long before my grandchildren were born. In fact, I’m seven years older now than he was when he died.
“You never knew your great-grandfather,” I say. “He fought here.”
I tell them what I know, what I wish I knew. My story. Our story.
Susan Pope writes about nature, travel, and family. Her work has appeared in Pilgrimage, Under the Sun, Cirque: A Literary Journal of the Pacific Rim, Hippocampus, Burrow Press Review, BioStories, and Alaska Magazine, among others. Her writing reflects intimate ties to the North and a restless pursuit of faraway places.