Those who have given their lives in military service to our country are honored on this and every Memorial Day, but they’re not here to tell their own stories. It takes the shared memories of those still living to bring their heroic sacrifices into focus. Taking time to listen to those stories makes Memorial Day more than just another holiday.
Harold Wilder, Jr. turns 90 this June. After many engaging e-mail exchanges in response to my columns, Hal asked if I wanted to read his memoirs: “People used to write letters and diaries. Those were the source material for much of our history, but now it’s all e-mails and digital files. They’re too often deleted and lost. There’s no delete button for a written diary.”
Like many seniors, Hal had expected his memoirs to interest only his family and friends. But as other readers began rekindling their own memories by reading his life’s story, he established his own website, www.grandfatherstories.com/. An early visitor, a woman from Camarillo, purchased two books. Hal was so excited that he delivered the copies in person.
“When I handed Josette Wingo her books, she gave me one back, Mother was a Gunner’s Mate,” Hal said. “As a Wave Gunner’s Mate, Josette had written her story for her children.”
“Before becoming a pilot, I spent a year and a half in an ammo plant,” Hal shared. “I saw women and girls just pick up the job and run with it. All through my flying missions I felt I must equal them. Someday, historians will find our memoirs about what it was like in America before and during the Great War. I want to leave breadcrumbs behind for people to remember. I wouldn’t want to leave that to newspapers; they’re too liberal!”
I took more notes as Hal continued, “My life at 90 is in full bloom. I don’t watch TV. I don’t have time. Entertainment is for people who don’t have anything to do. We’ve got too many people watching people live, instead of living.”
Hal refuses to forget his war experiences, “I still carry a piece of shrapnel that was found in my neck scarf when I returned from a bombing mission in WW II. If the fuselage was just a bit thinner or my jacket a bit thinner, I’d have been dead. I figure it was God’s way of saying I had something left to do with my life. I kept that piece of shrapnel with my dog tags, and it’s now on my key chain.”
Hal experienced a side benefit in sharing his memories. “I figure that memories are like a wonderful cabin in an isolated but beautiful forest. At one time you knew the way there, but because of not visiting those memories, I had to find a new way back to those cabins. But as I did so, I found that my vitality increased and my thinking improved.”
Reading “Brain Fitness” research helped Hal understand how writing his memoirs had improved his thinking. Hal contacted local researchers and offered to speak to brain trauma and stroke victims about how writing their memoirs might improve their brain functioning.
“I challenged them on the first session to write as much as they could remember,” Hal said. “One stroke victim took 30 minutes to write two lines. I had him struggle through reading the two lines to the group. He reread it a second time with slight improvement. His homework was to reread both sentences silently and out loud as often as he could before the next session. By the time he came to that session, he had mastered the two sentences perfectly and had added two more lines.”
Hal said with pride, “He was like a kid at Christmas. His face lit up like a candle as he shared his memories. He’d gone from powerless to powerful in one week. In a month, he had a page, and he was on his way. He was alive again! “
“My doctor says that I could live to 100, but I’m not sure I can afford to live that long,” Hal confessed. “But you don’t need a lot of money to enjoy life. There’s so much to do, and so many people to meet and enjoy. I want to live every day I have left.”
So, don’t just settle for a barbeque or a day at the park on this Memorial Day. Try honoring those who have died by taking time to write down your own memories of their sacrifices or listen to those fellow soldiers still living with a story to tell. If you don’t know any veterans, attend your local Memorial Day celebration and get to know one! Whether writing or listening, never forget to appreciate the ultimate sacrifice of those who gave their lives so that we might be free.