One of the best things I could hear on a weekend day during the summers of my childhood was my dad saying “Let’s go for a ride.” That usually came on a Sunday, after church and dinner, and we’d all clamber into the Ford – either the 1952 two-door or, after the spring of 1964, the four-door Custom – and head on out to wherever Dad’s whims took us.
We’d frequently head in the direction of Cambridge, fifty miles east, and visit some of Dad’s relatives. He had a sister and brother living in town there and a few aunts and uncles living nearby. I remember his aunts Ella and Minnie, both widowed and living together in a small rural house, with their brother Joe living in an even smaller home about fifty yards distant.
Ella and Minnie seemed – from what I noticed when I was a child and recall from more than fifty years ago – mentally sharp and talkative into their late seventies and eighties. Joe was quiet, and everything seemed a bit slower with him, and he seemed – again from the perspective of the child I was – not altogether present.
Age can do that, of course. I’ve seen it happen with Mom and Dad’s friends over the past twenty years, and I see it several times a week with some of the residents at Mom’s assisted living center. But with Joe, it wasn’t just age: Dad told me once that Joe was severely afflicted during World War I with what was called “shell shock.” (Now we call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.)
Of course, I knew next to nothing about World War I in, say, 1965. I probably knew that the war had happened, and I imagine I’d seen a television documentary about it at one time or another. (Even at eleven, I was a news junkie and loved documentaries.) But even if I knew anything about Sarajevo, about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, about Kaiser Wilhelm, or even about trenches and mustard gas, I really knew nothing about war or what it does to those caught up in it. And I surely didn’t understand what shell shock was.
When we’d go to Ella and Minnie’s, I’d wander down the fifty-yard path to Joe’s house and sit with him. Sometimes – and again, these memories are filtered through more than fifty years gone – he’d talk; sometimes not. I’d greet Uncle Joe, see if he was talking that day, and make some brief conversation if he was. Then I’d make my way back down the path to Ella and Minnie’s little house, to where the old folks were at least present, to where my family was, to where things were mostly the way they were supposed to be.
Looking back this morning, I think I knew somehow that Dad’s Uncle Joe was locked inside. And I guess I knew that there was no key at hand. I guess I also knew that whatever it was that had made Uncle Joe the way he was, it had happened a long time ago and that Dad had never known Uncle Joe to be any other way. And I knew it was sad.
Over the years since, I’ve read histories and memoirs about World War I and many other wars, and I’ve learned from them more about war and what it does. (And I’m thankful that I’ve never had to learn those things from personal experience.) But knowing and understanding are, of course, two different things. And as I write this morning (having followed my thoughts and words into a topic not at all anticipated), I wonder if the only thing I ever needed to know about war was the sad fact that it had forever locked my dad’s Uncle Joe inside himself.
And I have no music for that this morning.