The timing never felt right. It wasn’t until my early-twenties when I mustered up enough courage to ask my dad about his experiences in Vietnam. Sure, I remember tiny moments along the way when he would make mention of someone or something from his experiences in the Conflict. But they would always move quickly into other topics and the day-to-day of growing up. The U.S. had just opened its “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq and I needed to hear my dad’s voice. I knew it was time to hear his first-hand account of life during wartime. I picked up the phone and asked the real questions. As always, my dad gave me genuine answers; this time about the subject placed on the shelf until its relevancy drowned out all the small talk of our lives. I asked him if I could record the conversation and then we dove in. It wasn’t long until I stopped talking and just…listened. I hung on every word. This gave me such a sense of regret, for I had put this conversation off for years. Wrapped up in my dad’s story, I heard his voice as a young man speaking. When I replayed the cassette, I could swear I heard the echoes of my grandfather’s voice, whispering his tale of the second world war. I kept that tape safe; every now and again, giving it another play.
Five years later, I was working for Starbucks Coffee. We spent a week in New Orleans at a leadership conference and there I was exposed to StoryCorps for the first time. One of the most fun and memorable planned events was a series of recording booths where, two by two, we could split off with strangers who also slung coffee for the Siren. Near each microphone was a set of suggested questions to break the ice. The point of the exercise was to open up and share what would begin as a “Starbucks story” and then segue into the gritty details of real life, of hopes and dreams and of what makes each of us who we are; along with our preferred coffee beverage, of course. StoryCorps was this simple, amazing idea: one person telling their story to another. The oral tradition, celebrated and the archived in the American Folklore Center of the Library of Congress. After the conference, I picked up a copy of LISTENING IS AN ACT OF LOVE by David Isay. This book is filled with transparent and honest stories of everyday people. Folks dealing with pain, love and even war told their compelling stories to those who cared enough to sit and listen.
Hear one of those authentic, unflinching stories as featured on NPR.
The last time I played my dad’s tape, I was moved to share his story with others. With his permission and inspired by StoryCorps, I gave it a light fictionalization. It became A WARTIME BOOK: When to Keep Your Heart in Your Boot. Here is an excerpt from this free download:
“I worked a lot of night shifts during those first six months. I lived in what they call a Quonset hut which is like a big tent with a metal roof. There were about thirty of us in each of these temporary housings. I slept in the top bunk, above a guy named Paul. I’ll never forget him. I was eighteen and he was thirty-five. He was an old grizzly veteran from the New England area. We became good buddies. I was called the Babysan of the barracks because I was such a young, young kid.
I basically did anything and everything as a medical corpsman. I changed dressings, I gave medications. I went to get anything the guys needed. A lot of times we would show movies to them. Our walls at this medical facility were pure white. We kept it really clean, and when they came from the field hospitals they thought they were entering Heaven. I spent many a night running back and forth to get a hamburger or a pack of cigarettes for the guys, just to make them feel comfortable.
Towards the last months of my tour, I started to have a different perspective on the war. Because initially, when I went over there, I was as gung-ho as you can be. I had the tradition of your grandpa in World War Two and I felt pride and the need to be there. It must have been about the fourth month of my tour, I remember very distinctly looking at an issue of Stars and Stripes, which was the military newspaper, and they would have articles from all over the world… I’ll never forget starting to put two and two together.”
Go ask the questions sitting in the backseat of your mind.
Make the most of your conversations by being present in your listening.
Believe that your stories matter and they are worth sharing with others.