The Humor of War (A Family Short Story)

A soldier returning from war and eager to raise his ideal family is dumbstruck by the ever-changing world that is seemingly shutting out the institutions he once fought for.

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Written by Kevin Travers

There once was a man named Jack. Jack was born during a difficult time, in a difficult world. The oldest of seven children, he played baseball as a boy, and entered adolescence at the dawn of the Great Depression. Money was tight, and life was tough.

At 16, his father died. Now the man of the house, Jack had to work in a factory to support his mother and siblings. The job was boring, and he spent his days dreaming of becoming a lawyer, an upstanding member of society, an admired head of the family.

In his eighteenth year, Jack met a girl. Her name was Lorraine. She was a nice girl, neither pretty or plain, and they got along well. They talked of getting married, of starting a family, of settling down. Roosevelt had other ideas.

After Pearl Harbor, the President declared war. Jack was drafted and would be sent overseas. He visited Lorraine before leaving and, after a steamy moment in the back of his second-hand Chevrolet, said goodbye for the next three years.

He was assigned a platoon, and they shipped off. At first, they were excited, filled with the rush of travel and the foolishness of youth. When they heard the first shells landing, they were scared but tried to hide it. When they saw their first platoon member torn apart by one of these shells, they were scared but couldn’t.

They had found themselves somewhere in the heartland of Europe. The fighting was brutal, and there were moments along the way when Jack thought he wouldn’t make it. On cold nights, lying in the mud under a wet blanket, he held on to his dream of becoming a lawyer, an upstanding member of society, an admired head of the family.

Months in, on a night after a particularly vicious battle, Jack received a letter from Lorraine. She was pregnant. He was elated by the news, then saddened by the fact that he might never get to see his child. Jack’s platoon-mate Harling strolled over, with his usual Cheshire grin.

“You hear about Walter?” Harling asked.

Walter was in their platoon. At night, you could sometimes hear him masturbating.

“No,” Jack replied.

“Got his right arm blown off.”

“Oh no!”

“It’s tragic. Poor guy’s been widowed!”

Harling broke into a hearty laugh that filled the barracks.

“That’s disgusting.”

“Aw come on, Jack… it’s the humor of war! If you can’t laugh at it, you’re gonna have a miserable time here.”

The war dragged on until two years later, when a couple bombs were dropped, and it was all over. They went home as victors, as heroes. A new vision of society was emerging, one of teamwork, civic duty, and doing one’s part.

Jack came home to his son already walking. He knew that he had a duty to provide. Law school would cost money and take years, and unfortunately wasn’t an option anymore. He could still though be an upstanding member of society, and an admired head of the family. And in time, he could raise his son to be a lawyer, to live the life he never had. They moved into a house, a cozy bungalow just outside the city, and Jack got started on raising his family.

The 1950s were good to Jack. His son was turning out to be bright. After a few years he had a daughter, who seemed bright as well. Then they had a third daughter, Jack’s sweetheart. Jack lost all the hair on the top of his head that decade, a less wonderful turn of events.

Jack would read to his son, anything to stimulate his mind. The newspapers, history books, encyclopedias. When his son got older, he would engage him in debate, hoping to develop his oratory skills early. Sometimes his son would get upset, or not engage at all, but Jack kept trying. Jack was a soldier, and he would keep fighting to shape the boy into the great lawyer he knew he could be.

The first sign of trouble was the music. That infernal racket, coming from the record player in the boy’s room. That heavy guitar, with lyrics Jack didn’t understand.

The second sign of trouble was when the boy started coming home every night smelling like a skunk. Was he rolling around on the forest floor? And why were his eyes so red?

The third sign something was amiss was when the boy grew his hair out. Jack tried to explain that a man didn’t do that, tried to explain that it made him look like a girl. His son just said that the times were a-changin’. What did that even mean?

Jack’s son started wearing bright-colored clothing and sandals. He started using words like ‘groovy’. And when the time came to apply to law school… he didn’t.

“What?!” Jack shouted, nearly having a conniption fit.

His son explained that he didn’t want to go to law school. His son explained that he didn’t want to be a part of society at all! He was turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. Jack didn’t know what that meant, either. A new vision of society was emerging, one of individualism, spiritual exploration, and attacking the institutions Jack had helped build. Institutions this new, ungrateful generation now found stifling.

His son informed him that he was moving up North, to build a farm and live off the land. Jack’s jaw nearly shattered from hitting the floor so hard. He tried to argue with him, tried to reason with him, but the more he tried, the more his son ignored.

The next day, his son was gone. Jack tried to deny it, but the truth was clear. His son had left the family, and with him, Jack’s first dream.

Jack stayed in a funk for many weeks, until an idea came to him. Yes, his dream of becoming a lawyer may be gone, but he still had two daughters! The first was about to enter high school. He could teach her what it meant to be an upstanding member of society. Teach her what it meant to be a good woman, a good wife. He’d help her find a top husband, and who knows… maybe he’d be a lawyer.

And so, Jack went to work on child #2. He taught her the proper ways for a woman to behave- how to sit, what to say, what not to say, what was appropriate and what wasn’t. Jack fought to shape her into the best young woman he knew she could be.

The first sign of trouble were her friends. His daughter had fallen in with a group of girls who didn’t behave the way he liked. Some wore short hair. Some wore revealing clothes. And some- he couldn’t believe- even had boyfriends!

The second sign of trouble was the talking back. Interrupting him while he was speaking to express her own opinions! That wasn’t what he had taught her. He tried to explain this wasn’t how a woman acts, tried to explain that this made her seem like a man, but she would just cut him off and start talking about some book she was reading.

The third sign of trouble was the boyfriend. His daughter started dating a boy… a colored boy. He had nothing against them personally, you understand, but in Jack’s time this just wasn’t proper.

They argued nightly, much to the chagrin of the rest of the family. To make matters worse, the neighbors would snicker behind his back, whispering about his hippie son and activist daughter. Four tumultuous years later Jack’s daughter went off to college, and with her his first two dreams.

With two children now gone, Jack turned to his last daughter, his sweetheart. She always thought the world of him, and he fought to keep it that way. If he could keep her admiration as the head of the family, maybe that would be enough. She would now get all his attention. The more he pushed, though, the more she pulled away.

The first sign of trouble was when she said she had met a boy. Jack could see in her eyes that this boy meant something to her. Jack knew the boy’s family, knew of their bad reputation. He forbade her from speaking to him anymore.

The second sign of trouble was when they started dating. He argued with her, pleaded with her, tried to get her to see what he saw. She couldn’t. To make matters worse, the boy was turning her against him. She said Jack was being unfair to the boy, not giving him a chance.

The third sign of trouble was when his daughter announced they were planning to get married. Jack’s worst nightmare had come true. On the way to the church, Jack begged her to change her mind, said the boy would hurt her, said the boy would break her heart. She didn’t listen. To Jack’s despair, they were married that day.

In time Jack would be proven right, a victory he didn’t relish. The boy did hurt her. The boy did break her heart. A few years later they were divorced, his sweetheart now a single mother with a son. To help her get on her feet, she moved back into the family home. The neighbors snickered even more.

At first, Jack ignored his grandson- the boy reminded him of the father, reminded him of all the suffering his daughter had gone through. She requested one night, politely but forcefully, that he make more of an effort to engage with him. Jack tried, but the boy just kept talking about ghost and karate turtles or something. He was obsessed with cartoons and other things Jack simply didn’t understand, and simply didn’t want to. A new vision of society was emerging, one of cynicism, self-indulgence, and escape. The institutions Jack had fought so hard to build were now crumbling, and Jack didn’t like it.

Jack again fell into a funk for many weeks. He had tried so hard to give his children the life he never had, and yet everything still fell apart. They did the opposite of what he wanted, and they all suffered for it. Jack became angry. Jack became bitter. He pulled away from his family and grandson, spending most of his days sitting in his recliner reading the newspaper.

It was a sunny afternoon the day his daughter insisted Jack take his grandson to the park. Jack grumbled as he walked out the door, the young boy bouncing in tow. Jack paced along the river, counting the minutes until he could get back into his chair, while the boy ran around the baseball diamond yelling nonsense about some scenario he was dreaming up in his head. Jack never liked the park visits, never liked the loudness of children, never liked their obsession with fantasy and play. The boy was now pretending to be a baseball hero.

“Bottom of the ninth!” he shouted to no one, “seven-seven, two out… here’s the pitch…”

The boy pretended to move in slow motion as the pitch was delivered. He lifted his front foot, cocked his bat, and unleashed the perfect swing. He made a “click” as the bat and ball made glorious contact. The boy put his hand on his forehead, looking off into the distance.

“It’s going… going… GONNNE!”

The boy jumped up and down, then ran around the bases to the cheers of the crowd. When he reached home plate, he stomped on it, celebrating with his teammates.

It was at that moment, a strange thing happened. Jack had an epiphany. A lightning bolt of insight, hitting him like shells from the skies of the European heartland. He saw himself in the boy. A young kid without a father, losing himself in childhood dreams before the weight of the world would crush them. Jack flashed back through his life. The Depression. The War. The choices he made; the choices thrust upon him. They had all led him here, all shaped the person he was.

Jack had spent so much time and energy trying to mold his children into what he wanted. He realized that life had forced his hand… maybe it was wrong to do the same to his kids. He realized, to his own surprise, that he actually didn’t want them to turn out like him. He wanted something better for them.

Jack stood up straight, the afternoon breeze blowing against his aged face. A decades-long weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He decided, then and there, to fight with all the might he had left, to ensure that his grandson did not turn out just like him.

Jack got to work playing a different kind of role in the boy’s life. They played baseball together at the park. Jack read him stories before bed. He’d pick the boy up from school, and on the drive home listen to him talk about his weird ghosts and kung fu turtle stuff. Jack didn’t understand but didn’t care.

Jack encouraged the boy to figure out who he was, to discover his own interests and talents, and pursue those vigorously. He did everything he could to avoid pressuring the boy, everything he could to stop him from following in his footsteps. Jack and his grandson grew closer, the family was at peace, and all was well.

One afternoon, they were playing baseball in the backyard. The boy was pitching, Jack catching. It was hard on his knees, but Jack enjoyed harkening back to childhood play in his advanced age. After an hour Jack needed a break, and they took a seat on the wooden frame of an old, broken sandbox.

“Your pitching’s getting better,” Jack encouraged his grandson, “remember your follow through.”

The boy nodded.

“You’re really nice to me, grandpa,” the boy said, “no one plays with me like you do.”

“Oh… well, I guess you have more time when you’re older.”

“When we moved here, I thought you didn’t like me.”

“No, that’s not true! Sometimes… people just need a little time to get to know each other.”

“You’re really smart, grandpa.”

“Thank you,” Jack said, grinning from ear-to-ear.

The boy was quiet for a moment. Jack could tell he was thinking about something, contemplating something important.

“You know what, Grandpa?” he said with conviction, “When I grow up… I want to be just like you!”

Jack’s smile faded.

He let out a deep sigh.

His shoulders sunk, defeated.

The boy watched in confusion as his grandfather rose, stumbled to the door, and disappeared.

Jack spent the rest of the evening in a dazed stupor. His daughter asked him what was wrong, and Jack just mumbled back incoherently:

“It’s not funny… it’s just not funny…”

After dinner, Jack excused himself from the table and disappeared into his room for the evening. He died in his sleep that night.

THE END

Special Thanks to Neil Howe and William Strauss. Shoutout to the G.I.’s. Much love.

 

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