I turned onto Clamshell Road in search of number 184. My aunt and uncle had lived in this place for 20 years, but this would be my first visit. Montego Bay—Ocean City, Maryland, not Jamaica—is a community of modest modular homes, nearly all of which seemed to display American flags on that particularly hot July morning.

My aunt and uncle were fairly typical of Montego Bay’s residents, having moved there to enjoy retirement and stretch their small pensions. My aunt had been a bank teller and my uncle a mailman. She’d been robbed a bunch of times and he’d had more than his fair share of unfriendly canine encounters, but otherwise their working lives were pretty routine. They had raised two daughters about my age and lived not far from us so we saw them pretty often when I was a kid. My uncle could be a little rough at the edges but my aunt was tough enough to handle him. They were perfect for each other.

Now well into their 80’s, both of them had had a seemingly endless run of medical problems. Cancer, emphysema, heart, colon, and back operations—you could pretty much name an ailment and one of them had probably had it. That was a big part of my motivation to visit. I was at the beach with my daughter and her family, staying nearby, so I figured it’d be nice to surprise Aunt Audrey and Uncle Willie while the opportunity was there. As I pulled up to the curb at number 184, I knew that I had succeeded.

“Oh gawd, Audrey, look who’s here,” I heard my uncle say through the front screen. “Hey, Meathead!” he yelled, reviving the nickname he’d bestowed on me long before Archie Bunker had popularized the moniker.

As I recall, the origin of my less-than-flattering nickname had to do with a crabbing excursion when I was a kid. It was my Dad, Uncle Willie and I. As we pulled the bait lines up to the surface alongside the boat, I consistently failed to net the crabs. After numerous such failures, my uncle labeled me a meathead, thus clarifying my status as a first-class bungler.

As we spoke about this in my uncle’s front room that morning, he suddenly started telling a story. I was disoriented at first, like when you miss the first few minutes of a TV drama and you’re not sure what’s happening. It took me a little while to catch up. When I did, we were in New Zealand, the war was winding down, and my uncle was about to go home. His ship, a destroyer that would remain on duty in the South Pacific, had dropped him and several other homeward-bound servicemen in New Zealand. From there, they would crew their way home on merchant marine vessels as space allowed.

“We had to wait a couple weeks in Auckland,” my uncle was saying, “and when it was finally our turn, boy, were we ready! We were only a few hours out when it happened. Torpedo tore through the hull like it was made out of cardboard. Next thing I knew, I was in the water.”

Aside from knowing that one of my uncles had died in the war, and that several more uncles, as well as my Dad, had seen action, no “war stories” had ever made the family rounds.

“There were an awful lot of us in the water that afternoon, grabbing for anything we could find to stay afloat. I was able to get a grip on a wood plank about three-feet wide. There was another guy on the other side. We clasped hands so we could support one another.”

“There were only a couple hours of daylight left when the ship went down. As night fell, we knew we had to make it until morning to have any hope of rescue. It was the longest night of my life—bitter cold, and my arms ached something awful.” My uncle’s eyes were pointed at me, but they were seeing something else.

“Sometime that night, I realized that the other boy wasn’t really holding onto me anymore. I thought maybe he had passed out. I was determined not to let him go. I talked to that boy all-night long, but never got a response. It helped me though, you know—talking to him helped me.” I nodded my understanding.

“When dawn broke, I tried shaking him real hard, still nothing. I knew then that he was gone, but I told myself if I get out, he’s coming with me. I started to pull him up out of the water, to lay his body on the plank. That’s when I saw that his legs were gone. Shark hit him during the night; me three feet away. I didn’t even know it.”

My uncle was speaking softly now, tears in his eyes. My aunt sat quietly. We all did for a minute or so. Then my uncle said, “I had to let him go. I watched him go under. I didn’t want his mother to see him that way.”

Later that day, I was on the beach with my family. My mom and dad were there too. I told my mother how nice it had been to see my aunt and uncle and, particularly, how taken aback I had been at Uncle Willie’s war story. My mother looked at me, confused. I began to recount the tale and saw my mother’s jaw drop. She had never heard a word about it.

At first, I was stunned. Then it hit me. My mother, who was closing in on 80 herself, now a grandmother and a great-grandmother, was also the little sister. And you didn’t come home from the war, especially a war that had already taken one brother, and tell horror stories to your little sister. I found myself wondering if this was a universal truth—as applicable to today’s wars as it was to that terrible one some 60 years ago. I decided it had to be, and rightfully so.

How many such stories lie buried within the hearts and minds of those who have stood in harm’s way? How many seemingly unspectacular lives harbor tales of such solitary grief and silent good-byes? More than we will ever know, I’m sure. They stay hidden—maybe forever, or maybe until an inquisitive grandson unknowingly touches a nerve, or a long-lost nephew wanders in from the blue and trips some unseen psychological wire.

My uncle Willie died not long after he told me his story. It’s understandable why he held it deep inside for so long, unknown to so many. Still, it was an important piece of his history that had helped make him who he was. One could argue that, for that reason, it would have been good for more of us to know about it. But we love each other for who we are, not for what made us that way. I suspect that too is as it should be.

T H E  E N D


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