My grandfather wore a .45 caliber pistol at his hip when he fought in the Pacific theater in WWII. The trigger guard was shot off. He kept that pistol until he died. It was a kind of reverse sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward, invisible wound, of a bullet that nearly ended his life, of the bullets and bombs that ended so many others. To me, he was a hero, but I wonder if he was ever able to see himself that way.
As a young child I asked him, in wonder, if he had ever seen a man die in war. I did not know what I was doing. He was a good man, and a kind one, but that question drew from him the most anger I ever saw in his eyes or heard in his voice. "Of course I have!" he shouted. He got up from his chair and left the room, leaving me with my firmest impression of war, of anger and pain stored up for thirty years, like the shrapnel in his back that set off airport metal detectors until his death in the late 1980s.
I sat next to Bob at a Christmas party ten years ago. On his other side sat another veteran of the Great War. They huddled close and whispered loudly, as old men do, thinking I could not hear. I looked away to preserve their imagined secrecy, but could not help hearing bits of the stories they could speak of only with one another. The war was sixty years behind them, but their voices still trembled as they unburdened themselves in that moment only brothers in arms can share. I recall Bob saying this:
"...I checked on my men, and they were fine. I turned and began to walk away when the shell fell, right between them in their machine gun nest. All three were killed instantly. I had been speaking to them just a moment before, and now they were gone...." Both men were silent for a while after that. The men were gone, but their deaths lived on and on in Bob's dreams.