Why I’m so glad my veteran friend shared his stories before he died

Gov. Paul LePage made me smile last week. Smile and remember.

I know it’s shocking to associate LePage with an outpouring of positive emotion. Nonetheless, there I was smiling, remembering and tearing up after hearing that he and his wife Ann were promoting the Maine Veterans Legacy Project to preserve the living histories of veterans.

As some readers know, I lost my best friend a couple years ago, and he was an active duty Navy veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars. Holidays that involve veterans have been finding me a little blue because they were always days we made sure to get together. My friend was always one for telling stories, and veteran-related holidays triggered some emotional ones.

Sylvester Cobbs

For several years before he passed, we had an ongoing battle regarding the merit of recording some of his stories for posterity. He didn’t think his story was that unique, and there were parts he didn’t mind sharing, but he didn’t necessarily want them to become public knowledge. I agreed that no one would want their life to be an open book. However, he underestimated the extent to which his story had something to teach.

For years I begged. I reminded him he was not only an accomplished veteran, but he was also the grandson of a slave born in 1930 who had childhood recollections of life during the Depression. I played to his ego and called him a font of wisdom and experience, which he was. He still said no, but maybe I could convince him before he turned 99.

That’s what he always told me whenever the future came up. It had to be before he turned 99.

So I kept trying. The argument that finally convinced him was when I told him how much a part of me he was. I said I’d been listening to his stories for so long, they were a part of me and how I viewed the world, and my children knew him and understood this, but my grandchildren might not. My grandkids might want to know why grandma kept quoting this old Navy vet and who the heck was he.

Then I said that, even more importantly, there may come a day after he turns 99 that I really need to sit and find needed wisdom in one of his stories, but he might not be there to tell them.

That last bit broke him. He was around 80 or 81 at that point, and the terms were that I had to hand-write them and could only recopy them for myself, my boys and any future grandchildren. He did have terms that would have included mass production, but those terms became a new battleground to entertain us.

I told him he could try to convince me before he turned 99.

Every month or so, we’d interrupt the normal format of our visits to jot his thoughts and memories down in a notebook. Conversations about his tours in Korea and Vietnam bubbled up some pretty deep emotions, even tears, as he tried to reconcile the pride of service with the pain of what he witnessed as an active participant. It’s a reconciliation process that I, as a civilian, can only stand in awe of.

And it’s a reconciliation process that births a special wisdom. Our veterans bring that special wisdom into the telling of other life stories and life lessons, and it’s a critical wisdom to capture and to honor.

Besides the Maine Veterans Legacy Project, there are other ways to capture and celebrate veterans’ stories. StoryCorps is an organization committed to telling the stories of everyday citizens and is affiliated with the Library of Congress, among other organizations. StoryCorps has a specific side project dedicated to veterans that can be found here. Sample stories are also available through their partnership with NPR here.

The most recent NPR installment is about an uncle who served in Vietnam with his nephew, only to go on to be the one that escorted his nephew’s body home. It’s powerful.

If you know a veteran, find a way to document and celebrate his or her stories. Whether it’s through one of these organizations or just one-on-one with a digital recorder or a notebook, you won’t regret it. I know I didn’t, especially because it turned out that we didn’t have until my friend turned 99.

We only had until he was 83, and that was just too soon. There were so many stories we didn’t get to yet. Thank goodness for the ones I have.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.