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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

Conflicts about War

May 2020

The other day, someone asked me: What was your response to World War II? I’d never thought about that. I know I have conflicts about war that come from my early childhood memories of World War II and my Quaker background. My mother was quiet, descended from Revolutionary War activists as well as a lieutenant colonel who was one of Washington’s aides de camp. She brooked no arguing in our home, but supported the soldiers and sailors of World War II. Once a week she went to Cushing Hospital, in her Gray Lady uniform, a gray cotton dress with white collar and short-sleeved cuffs, to volunteer as a Red Cross Gray Lady. I also knew my father was a Quaker.

I know my memories and reactions during that war. I cuddled in my father’s lap while the family listened to the news. To this day I recognize the voices of Churchill and Roosevelt. I heard the news about D-Day and V-E Day, although as a child, I had them mixed up for dates and symbolism. I feared GermanNazisoldiers (yes, all one word) huddled under my bed waiting to drag me into their lair if I put my foot on the floor in the dark of night. I felt proud of my father when he picked up two hitchhiking sailors on Route 9, even though he gently told me as he slowed the car: Do not tell your mother. I liked the ill and disabled soldiers the day he took me to Cushing Hospital. I wanted to stay there because the presence of my three- or four-year-old self made them smile and want to talk to me. After I had my tonsils out, I hemorrhaged and covered the sheet with blood. The nurse went to the broad, deep, floor-to-ceiling cupboard to get clean sheets. There was not a one. Three boatloads of wounded had just arrived in Boston and the hospitals requisitioned all area sheets for them. My five-year-old soul felt compassion for these wounded men who were a lot worse off than my little hemorrhaging body. I loved my cousin’s son, Roddy, who had just lost his Army Air Corps father, Sergeant John E. Rodgers, or Johnny as his buddies nicknamed him, when these GermanNazisoldiers shot down his plane. Roddy was my age and try as I might, I could not imagine losing my father. I remember another cousin’s husband, Navy captain, Robert Veit, coming to the door in his whites. I was in awe of cousin Robert. His daughter, Kathy, a year older than I, was one of my lifetime best friends. Once a week, my mother and aunt, Roddy’s and Kathy’s grandmother, put on their Gray Lady uniforms and went to Cushing Hospital in downtown Framingham. I felt so proud of them helping. They were both quiet, pacifist woman who would help anyone in need.

Those were the responses of a young child. How did the events of that time and my memories stand out and flow into my adult life? How did those early events influence my response to World War II and my subsequent life? I respected the men and women in uniform including my drafted brothers-in-law and brother. However, with a pacifist-behaving mother and a Quaker father, I never thought of signing up, dating, or marrying one. But wait! I ended up falling in love with and marrying a Vietnam veteran who ended up becoming an officer and retired with 28 years of service. If anyone had told me my future the day before I met him, I’d have laughed.

I have long thought why I lean favorably toward the military and its people. My own short history knows about the Revolutionary War. My family was very supportive of those in World War II. I married an Army man. I was even chair of the Family Support Group of his deployed unit. I have worked with people with PTSD. I have consulted with a military suicide prevention project. Still I wonder how can I be so involved. I once asked a friend, a civilian psychiatrist for the military, how I should resolve being a military wife and a pacifist. She replied I could die with that issue unresolved and not to worry about it. Perhaps it’s because I’m passionate about helping those in need—have been ever since I was that little girl during World War II.

So what are my responses to that war? What has influenced my life and thinking? It gave me an interest in the history of my time. I am amazed that World War II and Vietnam are a part of my personal history and I was cognizant of their occurrence, causes, and implications for the future.

A few years ago I went to the Normandy beaches, to the cemetery of thousands of lost lives. I saw the monument to the Big Red One, the First Infantry Division…Fort Riley where my husband was stationed before deploying to Desert Storm, Fort Riley where I’ve had presentations and book signings. As I stood there looking at the monument, walking around it, with the waves coming in, it grew personal. These men 76 years ago and today are my people, my fellow citizens. This interest in war helped me get a job helping those in the military with suicide issues. It took me to Arlington National Cemetery where Roddy’s son is the chief archivist.

Pulling it all together, my response is one of support to the military as well as conflict about the role of military engagement. At the same time, while I value pacifism, I am aware that small arguments within marriages and families as well as huge battles will exist across countries and civilizations. I’d love to be a pacifist all the time; I’d love the world to be peaceful; but neither will happen. I am a realist who knows arguments and wars occur and will continue to occur.  I’d love the world to be peaceable, but that won’t happen.

Two of my favorite writings are The Iliad and The Odyssey, the story of the battle between the Greeks and Trojans and Odysseus’ ten-year recovery from what I now see as post-traumatic stress disorder. I first read them when I was eleven. They may have had as much an influence on my life as World War II.

What is conflict? A reality. What is war? A reality. Both will eventually get resolved, but in a war, sadly, thousands or millions die. Why can’t we resolve conflict without death?

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