Wednesday, August 31, 2011

NOT JUST A NAME ON A WALL

by Brett Battles

We live with inspiration every day. As a writer, I find it in the world I walk through, in the conversations I have, and, more often than not, in the people I meet. While they might not exactly become characters in my stories, they do form the basis for them. Often these characters, such as Logan Harper in Little Girl Gone, have a military background. This is in part due to the fact I grew up on a Navy base, and in part because of my Uncle Wesley.

I met Uncle Wes for the first time seven years ago, which might seem odd since he died nearly twenty years before I was born.

Wes was my dad’s oldest brother, and, by all accounts, a fun-loving, great guy. I got the impression from my father, who wasn’t much more than ten when he last saw his brother, that he idolized Uncle Wes the way younger siblings often look up to their older siblings.

Wes’s generation ran into a little mess called World War II. No, he wasn’t the only one to not come home, but unlike some families who were able to have a bit of closure after their loved ones were killed, my dad and his family were not.

Uncle Wes was an ordnanceman, second class, on a PBY. What was a PBY? Well, it was a special kind of plane. Not a fighter or a bomber or anything that needed a solid surface to land. The ocean, or the occasional river, was the PBY’s runway. Its job was to fly into battle zones, land on the water, pick up downed pilots and get the hell out of there. That, of course, wasn’t all these planes and their crews did, but it’s what’s stuck in my mind from the stories I’ve heard.

One night, while flying back to their base in Perth, Australia, from a mission in Malaysia, Uncle Wes and his crewmates simply disappeared. No one ever knew what happened.

The day I met my uncle was hot, but why wouldn’t it be? I was on the outskirts of Manila, capital of the Philippines, where temperatures routinely lived above ninety degrees, and the humidity index wasn’t far behind. My shirt stuck to my back, but I wasn’t about to let a little heat bother me. This was a day I had been thinking about for a long time.

The Filipino soldier at the gate looked into the taxi, and asked, “American?” I nodded, said yes, and he waved us through.

“There,” I said to my driver, pointing at a parking spot not too far inside. Though he could have driven me farther, I felt an overwhelming desire to walk.

As I got out of the car, the first thing that struck me was the silence. Here I was on the edge of one of the busiest cities in the world, and it felt almost like I was in the middle of nowhere.

Only it wasn’t nowhere.

As I walked up the gently sloping hill, I found myself surrounded by vast fields of freshly cut grass. Planted across the fields in orderly rows were the white stone markers of American soldiers who had died in action but whose remains could not be returned home. The view was serene and beautiful, an apt resting place. But these fields were not my destination. That lay at the top of the hill.

I was barely halfway there when out of nowhere—or maybe out of everywhere—I was overcome with emotion. I felt sadness and loss, but I also felt a sense of honor and appreciation. The only other times I had been similarly consumed were at the births of my children, but this was different. With my kids, I had anticipated the emotion. This caught me totally unprepared.

I reached the white limestone monument at the end of the road. Its two main components were a pair of mirror-image hemicycles. Within each were dozens of walls, and carved on these walls were the names of the missing.

With tears running down my cheeks, I moved through the monument until I came to the second-to-last wall of the western arc. There, cut into the stone just above eye level was: BATTLES WESLEY E.

This was what I had come for.

I can’t tell you how long I stayed there, and I can’t tell you how long I ran my fingers across his name, but I can tell you I said, “Hello, Uncle Wes.” I can tell you I said, “You’ve always been loved, and you’ve never been forgotten.” I can tell you I said, “Thank you.”

With a pencil and a blank piece of paper, I took an impression of his name. This was for my father. Something I would give him as soon as I returned home.

When I finally walked out of the monument, I took my time, reading random names, touching them, and repeated the words I said to my uncle over and over again.

“Thank you.”

Uncle Wes had never been more than a dim figure in my life. Until that day. Now he is a real part of me. I try to honor his memory, the memory of those who’d served with him, and those who have served since, the best ways I know how—by how I live, how I treat others, and through the stories I write.


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LITTLE GIRL GONE tells the story of Army veteran Logan Harper, who struggles with a past he can’t change, while doing everything he can to save the granddaughter of his father’s friend. It's available for the Kindle, Nook, and most other ebook readers. If printed books are your thing, there's a trade paperback copy also available through Amazon.com and CreateSpace.com.

Kindle USNookSmashwords.comKindle UK

Trade Paperback Version:

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And just released—the second Logan Harper Thriller, EVERY PRECIOUS THING.

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Trade Paperback Version:

CreatedSpace.com • Coming Soon to Amazon.com

12 comments:

  1. My thanks to your Uncle Wes for his service and sacrifice. My family's never had to deal the heartbreak of a loved one being MIA, thank God. I understand the emotion you talk about and how it just hits you. An amazing post, Brett.

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  2. Great post, Brett -- just added it to my Google Reader roundup. And you're the only thing in it, so I'll be sure to pay attention.

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  3. I saw your Twitter post and just had to read your blog. I am very fortunate that I have not lost anyone in a war although many family members have been in the service. I am truly sorry for your family and anyone who has lost someone. About 12 years ago, right around New Year's, we visited DC and toured many of the monuments - it is very humbling to see the statues, the names and the dedications. And the guard changeover at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier still gives me chills. I have a great-grand father who died shortly after I was born who I would love to be able to back and talk to, if only for a little while (we named our first son after him so I think of him and the stories I’ve heard about him often). Thank you for sharing!

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  4. Thanks, Christine. Even when I was writing it up a few days ago, the chill of that moment, walking toward the monument, came flooding back. It was quite a day.

    Tim, thank you, my friend.

    Steve, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I love the fact that you named your son after your great-grandfather, and share your wish that we could go back and talk to those who we truly to young (or, perhaps, not even born yet) to really know before.

    Please feel free to share this post with anyone you think would like to read it.

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  5. Very moving post Brett. I know your father must have really appreciated what you did.
    Traci
    ps. I'm about halfway through Little Girl Gone. Another cant-put-it-down 'er. :)

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  6. oh, Brett - this was lovely. Thank you.

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  7. I appreciate your sharing your experience. Thank you.

    I was in NE India earlier this year, wandering about the Imphal cemetary when I ran into a gravestone: Gunner DSJ Rawlins RA Nov 1944 24 years. One of the clan had gone off to save the Empire and finally, I had the honor of being a witness.

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  8. Great memory, Brett, thanks! I'm our family's "genealogist," and I've written many stories of our now-gone family members. I know how emotionally moving, how real, the people can become as you tell their stories. Well, done!

    (I've read "Becoming Quinn" and "The Cleaner." More of your books, including "Little Girl Gone," are waiting for me on my reader, only being put off by my being in the depths of Tim Hallinan's "Queen of Patpong," the last of his published works that I haven't read.)

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  9. Thanks for stopping by and reading it, Kaye.

    jogil...we share the same story. I'm glad you found him.

    Everett, thank you, and, double thanks for reading my books! No worries on the wait. QUEEN OF PATPONG was my favorite book of 2010. Tim did a masterful job.

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  10. Awesome post Brett! Loved it. It is those who walked before us that make us who we are today.

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  11. A great tribute, Brett. Thank you Uncle Wes from all Americans who are free because of your sacrifice.

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