“There are a million stories out there.”
I always knew I was a writer. That I would spend my life writing. I started with the nonsensical curlicues that precede writing (and reading)–filling line after line in the kind of small bound notebook the could easily be had for a few pennies at “the Five and Ten.” By the time I was in third grade I was pecking out a plot-less play on the family’s ancient typewriter.
I earned my living, quite successfully throughout my working life, as a writer. But in terms of churning out a saleable short story—or novel—I’ve been an abysmal failure. Why? Because I have no imagination. At first, I thought this would be a fatal flaw. But over the years, I have discovered: not so. For even though I appreciate masterfully written fiction, the compulsion for me has always been to explore, recognize, and share the power, magic, and wonder embedded in true life.
No one taught me this lesson better than my Uncle Joe. From the time I was too young to remember first hearing them, Uncle Joe’s stories have been a part of my life. By the time Joe was a very old man, I had heard many of his stories so frequently that I knew them by nearly word for word…by heart.
And yet he would once in a while, surprise me, by launching off on a new tale I had never heard before.
Joe’s most compelling stories all derived from his six years in the Navy…from 1940 to 1946…and so included his experiences before, during, and after World War II.
Joe was very fortunate. In fact, he was very strategic. For he was thoughtful about his military service and, to the extent possible, made decisions that enabled him to survive the War relatively unscathed.
The first of those decisions was to choose the Navy. Aunt Anna’s husband, Uncle Leighton McConnell, had been a doughboy during the Great War. At many a Sunday dinner he would regale the family with first hand accounts of life in the trenches–mud and rats, bombardment, and mustard gas, short rations, the cold, the wet, and the primitive pits that served as latrines.
In the Navy, Joe decided, he would at least be able to count on a dry bed and a hot meal. His first posting was to USS Wichita, a heavy cruiser, part of the Atlantic Fleet. Fate placed him in the boiler room, a place, it turned out, where you didn’t want to be—amidships, below decks—if a German U-boat got your ship in its sights.
And so he volunteered off the Wichita when the opportunity presented itself. This landed him in the engine room of USS Redwood, a net tender in the Caribbean, where U-boats were sinking Allied ships at an alarming rate. Not a huge improvement.
A visit home while on leave in 1943 gave Joe the opportunity to tour the South Weymouth Naval Air Station, which had materialized in the woods and fields where he had roamed as a boy. Here he discovered he could apply for lighter-than-air training. And so, he ended up on the ground crew of Blimp Hedron #1 in Lakehurst, New Jersey, for the duration of the War.
Joe’s brothers, however, were not so strategic. Uncle John served in the U.S. Army’s 349th Infantry; he fought in the Rome-Arno, No. Apennines, and Po Valley campaigns. Uncle Phil ended up a ball turret gunner on a B-17 and survived seventeen missions over Germany. Uncle George, despite being over thirty, married, and the father of two young children, was drafted into the Navy and served in the Naval Postal Headquarters in New York.
The Flynn brothers had countless friends who were also Veterans of World War II. Howard “Red” Vaille who lived diagonally across from my grandmother’s house served in the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division—The Big Red One. Bob Caron who lived in the apartment upstairs in Grammy Flynn’s house was a Marine; he spoke of black sand, fox holes and chocolate bars–a severe editing of reality for the sake of very young ears.
In our extended family there had been the deaths of a young sailor on D-Day, a young airman in a flight training accident–one of the all-too-frequent occurrences that went largely unreported.
Of the four Flynn brothers, it was only Joe who I heard launch into tales about the War. Uncle John and Uncle Phil did not bring up the topic, but would briefly answer questions, when asked. Neither of them were natural-born storytellers, like Joe. But also, neither was anxious to revisit a time that could only have been terrifying and traumatic in a way that Joe’s wartime service was not.
Although Joe obviously relished revisiting the boiler room of the Wichita, the engine room of the Redwood, the big hangar at Lakehurst, the islands of the Caribbean, and the storms of the north Atlantic, he knew that the experiences of others were also worthy of being told, with the words, “There are a million stories out there.”
I find that I have been entrusted with several of them.