My Uncle James was withdrawn. He’d sit in the rocking chair in my grandmother’s kitchen for hours, slowly rocking, staring into space.
He was so different from my mom’s other siblings, my Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Eddie, also still living at home with my grandmother when we were little. They were all in their 20s, James the youngest. Unlike James, however, Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Eddie were full of life. There wasn’t much money in that house, but those two made everything fun. We loved being there.
But then James came home. A big deal was made of that, but once the celebration was over, the atmosphere at 18 Drake St. changed. We were told to be quiet, something we had never before heard. To vacate the kitchen when Uncle James was in his familiar spot. To play out on the porch, or in the living room. To stifle our laughs and curtail our tendency to try to out-shout one another.
And God forbid one of us would let the screen door slam. Then, James would leap right up out of the rocker. And everyone, even his brother and sister, would scatter.
A toddler in the neighborhood spent a lot of time hanging around my grandmother’s, especially if we Ackerman kids were visiting. She was all innocence and joy and bubbling with delight. One day as we sat on the front porch, the door opened and out she came, arms folded across her chest and her bottom lip protruding like Shirley Temple’s.
“What’s wrong?” Aunt Dorothy inquired.
She stomped her foot and announced, “That Zames in the rocking chair told me to get out.”
We were too young to fully appreciate what it meant when Aunt Dorothy or Uncle Eddie or my mom or grandmother took us aside to tell us Uncle James wasn’t always this way. The Korean War, they said, had taken a toll on him.
He’d go on to have a wonderful life, to be a loving husband and even more loving father. And a sweet, caring uncle, as well. And we all eventually forgot those early years just after the war.
But I doubt Uncle James fully did.
More than 20 years after Uncle James’ passing, and as the 65th anniversary of the end of the Korean War approaches on July 27, I just finished reading a book on this so-called “Forgotten War,” and finally have some sense of what “that Zames in the rocking chair” must have endured as a terrified kid trying to sleep in a frozen fox hole in a foreign land. I can finally imagine what he must have been “seeing” as he rocked back and forth in the kitchen and stared.
The book is called “The Frozen Hours.” Not far into it you know why. It’s something Korean War vets know without reading it. They survived temperatures of 30-below at the Chosin Reservoir, just south of the Chinese border. They survived frost bitten toes and noses and C-rations frozen so solid they were impossible to eat.
I thought I knew something about the Korean War. I watched “M*A*S*H,” didn’t I? The movie and the TV show. But until I read this book I knew nothing.
I’m often fascinated at the way certain books wind up in my hands. I planned a trip to Los Angeles to visit my son over Father’s Day weekend and intended to bring along a Stephen King novel for the flight. But I forgot it and so found myself looking over the book rack at the Philadelphia airport. I had never before heard of “The Frozen Hours,” but I was quite familiar with its author, Jeff Shaara, so I knew it would be good.
Jeff Shaara’s father, Michael, wrote one of my favorite books ever, “The Killer Angels.” It’s a historical novel about the battle of Gettysburg. When Michael Shaara unexpectedly died, Jeff followed in his dad’s footsteps and wrote two historical novels about the Civil War, “Gods and Generals,” a prequel to his dad’s book, and then “The Last Full Measure,” a sequel. The three are often packaged and sold together.
Historical novels are considered fiction because the author creates dialogue between the characters as he imagines it would have transpired, but the characters are real and the events accurate. In “The Frozen Hours,” Jeff Shaara does this to perfection. I was 100 pages into it when I boarded the plane at LAX to return home, and nearly finished when I landed in Philly. I barely lifted my nose from it for the entire six hours.
Throughout I could not help thinking of the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Next to the Vietnam Wall, on which are names of two of my high school pals, I find it the most moving memorial in the nation’s capital. Seeing it from afar stops you in your tracks. Experiencing it up close puts you right there.
In his book, Jeff Shaara quotes historian Allan Millet: “In terms of the collective memory of the American people, the Korean War is not just forgotten. It was not remembered in the first place …”
We have an opportunity to rectify that on Saturday, July 21, in the rotunda of the Luzerne County Courthouse where there will be a Korean War memorial event. The program begins at 11 a.m.
More than 33,000 Americans were killed in battle in Korea. Close to 300,000 survived the ordeal and returned home. But how many, I wonder, like Uncle James were never again the same. The answer, I fear, is all of them.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.