Kage Baker had a particular fondness for WWII soldiers (Daddy was one). And she had a particular horror of that war as well.
I’m not sure why. Neither was she. But footage of the European Theatre, in particular, upset her – which is doubly peculiar, considering that Daddy fought elsewhere: Egypt, India, Burma. He was a paratrooper, and jumped into a lot of dense green jungles. He was also a sniper, and fought a lot of one-on-one battles in those same dense green jungles, hunting men whose only traces were rustling and footprints in the mud. An incautious voice, a flash of metal, some radio static – those were the targets. Sometimes you found a body afterwards; more often, you didn’t.
It was another sniper who ended his war, shooting him in the belly as he swung across an Asian sky on his way down to Burma. When they got him to medical care, he was put on an experimental program, using a new drug just developed for wound treatment: penicillin. Just the thing for a guy packed out of a wet jungle with a gut wound. It’s probably the main reason Kage was even born, because it’s the only reason he came home on his feet instead of in a box.
He brought home souvenirs. There was the Ghurka knife (Anne cut her wedding cake with it); the gold ring he got as a bonus for being part of Winston Churchill’s honour guard one afternoon in Cairo (it was Momma’s wedding ring eventually); the second navel two inches below his original. But it was the pictures of Europe – where he never saw any danger – that haunted Kage.
Mind you, when we were small, that footage seemed to run day and night on television. Walter Cronkite and The 20th Century: she and I watched it avidly, deeply confused but fascinated, and we both came to the same conclusion: the war was still going on. Europe was a black and white grainy battleground, where shelter was one wall and half a chimney; where it was always overcast and bombs fell out of the clouds; where, despite the heroic allies storming up the beaches on D-Day, there was always one more smoking village full of Germans and dead men.
We were disabused of this notion at some point during grammar school. I’m not sure when or quite how, because the TV show Combat! aired from 1962 to 1967, and it was always watched in our household. But gradually, the difference between epic fiction and recent history was established. Kage could stand the films a little better then, knowing it was, yes, actually over and we had won.
Of course, about that time, we started getting weekly current events handouts in class, full of the latest news from Vietnam. Anyone else remember that glossy black and white, The Outlook? But that was a different war, and we were old enough to know it. The men who went, and came back, and came back changed, and never came back at all – they were our men, the men we grew up to live with as women. You see those men in a different light from your impossibly-young father in a snapshot, or Tom Hanks crawling up a French beach.
In the meantime – meaning the rest of our lives after the 60’s – Kage just avoided WWII footage as much as she could.
As for the History Channel – dubbed by our nephew Michael as the Hitler Channel – we just checked the listings carefully and left it alone a lot of the time. As Kage said, “I may have thought WWII was still going on when I was 6 – but these bozos wish it still was!” Too much for her. Ancient aliens, dinosaurs, Area 51, the deliciously lurid lives of the de Medicis and Tudors – yep, all fine. But not D-Day. Not France under the Germans. Not the Blitz, nor the fall of Berlin, nor the death of Dresden.
I’ve never seen Schindler’s List, or Saving Private Ryan, or Das Boot, or The Big Red One, or Patton … I could now, of course – there are lots of classics among those movies, and the topic only bothers me as much as any war film should – but … I remember when I thought Combat! was a documentary. I remember thinking Walter Cronkite was a live war correspondent. I remember Kage inexplicably crying every D-Day, when the tottering old soldiers made their way back to that beach where they saved the world.
I thank them all. I honour them. I will always remember them. But, like Kage, I can’t watch it anymore.