“War is sometimes described as long periods of boredom punctuated by short moments of excitement. History is often similar, if rather safer.” ― John H. Arnold
Since I am neither a combat vet nor a renowned historian, I will have to take Arnold at his word. At the Museum of the American Military Family & Learning Center in Tijeras, we curate stories of war, generally from the family’s perspective, which do seem to mirror this sentiment, although boredom is not how I would describe it. It’s more like “no news” and then “NEWS!” The “no news” period consists of mild, generalized anxiety, and the “NEWS” part is a period of extreme emotion.
For example, when my husband was deployed to the desert during Gulf War I, I got a phone call. The connection was static and dropped a lot, and after I heard the word “hospital,” I pretty much lost it. I wondered why I hadn’t been notified by the Red Cross that something was wrong. I imagined my life as a widow, or as a caregiver. My children without their father.
After a few more connection attempts, my husband finally came through clearly. He was at the hospital for a dislocated finger—not from a combat injury, but rather from an impromptu football game!
After the fright I’d had, he didn’t get much sympathy from me.
Some veterans I have talked to acknowledge that there is a lot of tedium in deployment and explain what they did to fill those long, boring hours.
Besides football, my husband recalls endless card games and backgammon matches; others describe staging elaborate races with dung beetles or fighting matches with camel spiders. Some were lucky to see a USO show or two.
During the Vietnam War, 19-year-old Sam Hall and his friends took boredom and creativity to a whole new level. They usually stayed busy maintaining up to sixty vehicles a day in the motor pool and downtime was infrequent—but, when it did happen, the boys devised an interesting game.
“Beer was cheap—five cents a can—so we’d each buy a six-pack. We’d take turns strapping ourselves into a harness, and we’d be hoisted up onto a cherry picker, hang in the harness and spin around while drinking our beers. Whoever drank the most and didn’t throw up was the winner.”
In our archive, we have dozens of letters written from troops to their families, and it’s fascinating to see how some of them coped with their downtime. One man wrote long lists of farm chores for his wife to do—his letters were both directorial and loving. Another wrote short travelogues about the places he was “visiting.” In one of our copies of a journal written by an American prisoner of war, one can appreciate how he coped with his years-long interment by writing poetry and drawing cartoons of prison camp life.
War is certainly nothing to laugh at, but whenever two or three veterans get together down at the museum, they share their stories and some of the stories are downright funny.
World War II veteran Alfredo Cordova told me that during the war, he’d taken the advice of an elderly uncle who served in the first World War. The uncle had stressed how hungry he’d been in the trenches: Alfredo needed to stockpile canned meat and other food rations before he went into battle. Alfredo took his uncle’s advice to heart and the night before he left England for the front lines in France, he stuffed his rucksack full of canned supplies. It seemed a good plan until Alfredo had to climb from a small boat onto the bigger troop ship via a rope ladder. His pack was too heavy and awkward to for him to maneuver up the ropes and he was in real danger of falling off backwards and drowning under the weight of his pack.
“I hooked onto the rope ladder and started emptying my cans out. If they haven’t rotted, I guess they are still there in the English Channel today.”
While visiting the museum, Jack Birosak told me about his friend, Leonard, who was a Marine during WWII. The night before a battle on one of the Pacific islands, while still aboard ship, Leonard unexpectedly ran into a school mate from his hometown. That friend worked in the ship’s galley and hooked him up with several roasted chickens to take with him in his tank the next day. After all, who knew when, and where, the next meal would be?
As Leonard drove in his tank onto the beach during the battle, the tank came under enemy fire, and a large round struck it, setting it ablaze. Everyone inside had to get out—Leonard evacuated through the top hatch, and immediately got shot. As he lay bleeding on the beach, all he could smell was burning chicken, and he didn’t know if he was madder at the Japanese for shooting him or for destroying his chickens.
While deployed to Iraq, my son was given the dubious task of emptying out the contents of two huge refrigerator units that had broken down. As he opened the doors, hundreds of half-melted individual butter packets and bags of rotten seafood fell out. The stench was unbearable and as he tried to pull the out the rest of the food, he kept slipping on all the butter packets. After hours in the sun, he was coated in butter and seafood slime and was practically broiled alive!
So, if you come to visit the Museum of the American Military Family & Learning Center, you will have the opportunity to learn more about war, as told by the men, women and children who experienced it up close and personal, or through a different lens from a distance.
There are sad stories, and funny ones—as well as ones that question why our country seems perpetually at war. There are the stories of military wives living in very primitive conditions in post-war Japan and Germany, forging friendships across former enemy lines, or going door-to-door to notify, and then comfort, wives who were just learning that their husbands were dead in Vietnam.
History is not boring at our place; it comes alive through the artifacts and stories preserved and shared in our museum and the excitement in the voices of strangers meeting fellow visitors who share different, yet similar experiences.