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Four Years at the Mount

Senior Year

Before and after

Sarah Muir
MSM Class of 2018

(7/2017) "Who were you before the war?" asks a young boy. He is young enough that the war has become a fireside story; simple black and white with a golden valor lining. The battles have become factual signposts and the bloodshed, merely statistics. Since then there has been a tense peace, a settled anger felt only by the ones old enough to remember and headstrong enough to hold on to those grudges.

He was a farmer, he tells him, born and raised alongside his brothers in some rural part of Northern Kentucky. He tells the boy of a rosy, wholesome, youth with the smell of hyacinths across a garden and tuffs of loose cotton bouncing away on the breeze. Halfway through, he convinces himself that this was someone elseís history; a history that did not end with one brother dead and the other two stubbornly pulling away in opposite directions. He does not tell the boy about how the flash of the musket blinds you for a few seconds, or what it feels like to have waded through mud and blood and hope you do not come face to face with kinsfolk on the other side of the enemy line, or how it felt when you did. He never told the boy about what the world was like without anesthesia or what it feels like to have an itch in a leg that is impossible to scratch.

"Who were you before the war?" It's a young girl that asks him and he could remember a bright past where a little boy had the same curiosity. He wonders if he was as young as the little girl asking him or if he looks as old as the man from a life time ago. At first, he does not know what to say, but he answers her, of course, keeping it simple. He worked at a little hardware store nestled between a corner grocery and a flower shop. He remembered hearing folks complain when the prices pitched up. He tells the little girl about the poster calling men to take up arms, the pull to serve his country and travel abroad. How the siren song of duty and honor washed over him and a great many others. Some of his friends joined, he tells her, and they mostly came back home, more or less. He doesnít tell her about the walls made of mud, between which puddled water and far less pleasant things. He never spoke of the flash of a gold clock, the sound of the charge, the mad fury of man-made hail, or the frustration of gaining an inch of ground a month. He doesnít tell her about the newer and cleverer ways men killed each other, how the shockwave runs through your body like some invisible creature, and why he still flinches when a car backfires.

"Who were you before the war?" Asks her daughter at bed time. She had talked of little else since she read a chapter on it in class and her mother had to hold back some of her amazement at the fact they managed to cut it down to just one chapter. She supposes she was just a teenage girl in high-school, the future then was optimistic and so far away. But that was such a long time ago when the war was a separate entity, wreaking havoc on only a few pages and paragraphs in her fatherís newspaper. She remembers the stamps and the cook books with rationed recipes and the complaints at these inconveniences shared between friends. Then she remembered the day the war came far too close. She talks about the walls of posters the WANTED ads in the newspaper. She tells her daughter of the rivets, machines, and war effort; of the feeling of needing to do more and of the Womanís Army Corps. She briefly mentions becoming a nurse and leaves it there. She does not talk about the sound a bomb makes when it strikes too close for comfort or what a fifteen hour straight run in the hospital as heavy causalities flood what makes do as a hospital. She never tells her daughter of the chaos, the cries of desperate, frightened people, the fetid smell of wounded, or why her hands shake a bit when she passes by a memorial or why she saves even the smallest morsel of food.

The next time her daughter hears that question, is at a commemoration ceremony honoring those who served and those whose lives were lost in the Korean War. She knows her fatherís name is somewhere and she is relieved that at least now she has somewhere to go and place flowers. She overhears a reporter ask a veteran the same question she asked years ago. She doesnít listen to the reply, trying to think of who she was before the war and is shocked that she cannot remember. What she does recall is the nuclear drills in school and wondering how a desk was going to help. She remembers commercials on the television enticing people to buy war bonds and the argument her parents had before her father enlisted; the knock on the door a year later with the news that he was missing in action. The reporter has moved on to ask his questions elsewhere and she overhears a small voice ask, "Would you do it again?" She hears him reply the same way her mother did "For you? Yes."

When you look back at history there are always points in which the world changes. Moments after which there is no turning back to how things used to be; a definitive before and after. War, or moments of extreme violence create this definition and such moments bring out the best and worse in humanity. This July marks The United States of Americaís 241 anniversary of our independence. Since then, we have lived and survived through many of these moments and we owe this to the men and women who have sacrificed their lives and livelihood to protect the people of this country. I am, along with so many others that owe you for protecting our freedom, forever grateful for your service and wish you a Happy Fourth of July.

Read other articles by Sarah Muir