A few hours to spare on my book tour visit to Charleston, SC last week, spent at Patriot’s Point.
If you haven’t been, go. It’s a living tribute to the men and women of the U.S. Navy in war and peace – ships, aircraft, stories. The stunning centerpiece is the USS Yorktown, the World War Two-era aircraft carrier saved from the scrap heap in 1975, towed to Charleston Harbor, and dedicated as a memorial.
As you wend your way through the narrow passageways of the Yorktown and stand beneath the wings of the aircraft on the hangar deck and flight deck, you can’t help but feel a powerful sense of the history of America in armed conflict. Most importantly, if you take time to be quiet and think about it, you get a sense of individual lives, the thousands of young men who lived on the Yorktown, and through them, all our young who fight our conflicts and often die. It’s the same feeling you get standing on Omaha Beach at Normandy.
How did they do it? How do you strap yourself into a fragile craft and fling yourself off the heaving deck of a carrier, heading into aerial combat and knowing the chances are you won’t make it back? How do you stagger off the ramp of a landing craft on a June day in 1944 into a wall of steel and lead, knowing you probably won’t make it across the beach? Watch the first twenty minutes of “Saving Private Ryan,” then sit in stunned silence and ponder how a person faces the hopeless and acts anyway.
And then think about what comes after, how young men and women go off to war, and if they survive, come home and make lives.
My father and three uncles served in World War Two – a sailor, an infantryman, two pilots. They went in harm’s way, confronted people who wanted to kill them, dealt with their own terrors, and made it back. They settled in a small southern town and got on with things. Worked, raised families. They stored their war experiences in duffel bags and footlockers in my grandmother’s attic, and as a curious youngster, I rummaged through their memorabilia and came to a glimmer of understanding of what it must have been like for them, being far from home and loved ones, facing their own mortality. They didn’t talk about their lives at war, but I came to see how it must have altered them in profound ways, large and small.
It affects me deeply as a writer, knowing that there are undercurrents, histories, things hidden in all our lives – good and bad – that give us depth and texture. What is not seen is often most important. I treasure that in my characters, and as their lives unfold in my stories, I come to appreciate how their textures and histories and undercurrents shape who they are and what they do, say, and think.
If I ever suspect I’m losing sight of that, I know what to do. Go back to the Yorktown.