The Changed In A Changed Land

I spent part of last evening watching the final episode of the HBO miniseries The Pacific, the tale of a cluster of U.S. Marines in World War II. The battles were over, and the Marines were going home, changed by their experiences both in and between battles and returning to families and friends whose lives had gone on without them for the period of their absence.

I haven’t watched every episode of the miniseries; I plan to go back and do so. But last evening’s show intrigued me. Part of that is that I’ve long been fascinated by the tales of the home front during World War II. The stories of those who stayed behind while millions of men went off to battle tug at me for some reason. I’m interested in the history of the war, certainly, the war in Europe in particular, but I feel a kinship for some reason with those who stayed home. That’s one of the reasons that my reporting project for my master’s degree many years ago was a lengthy examination of life in Columbia, Missouri, during World War II.

And the experience of coming home from war also intrigues me. The scenes in that last episode of The Pacific reminded me of one of the classic American films. One of the best movies I’ve ever seen – mannered and slow-paced though it seems today – is William Wyler’s 1946 feature, The Best Years of Our Lives, which tells the tales of several Americans – some of whom went to war and some of whom stayed home – as they try to adjust to post-war life.

Both last evening’s episode of The Pacific and Wyler’s film, which I saw years ago, reminded me of a brief chapter in my own life, my return to St. Cloud after spending nearly nine months going to school in Denmark. I know how foolish that sounds. It would be obscene to equate museum-hopping in Copenhagen with being shot at on Iwo Jima. But I’m not doing that: I’m looking at the experience of being away and coming back. Still, the comparison would seem specious to me if it weren’t for something my dad said to me not long after I came back to St. Cloud.

I wasn’t quite lost, but I knew that I wasn’t fitting back into my life the way I had expected to. My friends laughed at my stories, but I knew that I’d experienced more than funny tales while I was gone, and either I was unable to communicate how my life had felt during my time in Denmark or they were unable to grasp what I was trying to get across to them.

And I felt out of place, in ways large and small. I recall two moments: The first happened late on the first evening I was back, as I drove home from having a cup of coffee with a young ladyfriend I’d missed. As I drove past the campus of St. Cloud State, the thought ran through my mind: “I’m back in St. Cloud. This morning, I was in Copenhagen. Something about that doesn’t seem fair.” The second instance took place a couple of days later in a gathering of friends when someone made a reference to a commercial pitchman whose antics had become a running punch line. My friends all laughed as I sat silent, not getting the joke.

And that night, my dad told me he’d been through the same thing in 1945 when he’d gotten home from his World War II service in India and China. “You weren’t in a war,” he said. “But you’ve had an intense experience, something that only the other people who were there with you can understand. And those who weren’t there will never really grasp how it was.” And there was a flip side, he said: “While you were gone, lives went on here. People will talk about things that happened, and all of them will know the story, but you won’t. In time, that will happen less and less.”

He was right about all of that, Dad was. And I was reminded of that conversation as I watched the characters in The Pacific deal with their returns, all of them hauling back to the States much more emotional baggage than I brought with me when I came home in May of 1974. And as I thought about the parallels, I realized that it was thirty-six years ago this week that I packed my two suitcases, spent one last night in Copenhagen, and got on a plane to come home.

So I turned, as I so often do, to the music, and dug into the deeper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 that came out during the week I got off that plane, bringing my changes home to a place that had also changed.

Eddie Kendricks: “Son of Sagittarius,” No. 45 as of May 25, 1974, later peaked at No. 28

Four Tops: “One Chain Don’t Make No Prison,” No. 56 as of May 25, 1974, later peaked at No. 41.

Tower of Power: “Time Will Tell,” No. 69 as of May 25, 1974, peak position.

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3 Responses to “The Changed In A Changed Land”

  1. Paco Malo says:

    I spent the spring of 1979 living in Rome and traveling everywhere within reach across 4 months. I had the same feeling coming home that you describe. More precisely, that your dad articulated when neither of us could.

  2. After I spent most of a year studying and trekking through Southeast Asia, I returned home right as the Christmas shopping season was launching. One week, I was in some impoverished part of Thailand, then, boom, I was bombarded with Christmas advertising.

    Quite disorienting.

  3. Perplexio says:

    This phenomenon would kind of explain why so many soldiers that have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan end up signing up for another tour over there and the pull to return that so many of those soldiers feel.

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