Bookends by Elizabeth Dudley Wilbur

As a very small child I learned language just like all small children. Only in my case there were some mysterious words that took me years to sort out their true meaning. There were words like Amtrak, lugao, Santo Tomás, Los Baños, Baguio, paratroopers. These words were part of my family life and lore. They were the words of World War II internees (another one of those words!). I played with my mother’s crutches, pretending to walk on them by putting my arms where her hands went. I watched my brother put on his leg brace first thing in the morning. Now, three quarters of a century later, I watch another war tear up the fabric of millions of peoples’ lives.

In between there have been more than enough “conflicts” as we euphemistically call “small wars”. There are no small wars to those who live through them and with the after effects of them. In contemplating my own bookends, I have reflected that the first major event of my life which occurred before I was born, was preceded only eighty years by the American Civil War which in turn was preceded only “four score and seven” by the American Revolution. In between those two world changing events were several other “conflicts”, the War of 1812, the Mexican American War to name two, leaving out the constant violent contact between Native People and European settlers.

In my own seventy-five years, the war in Vietnam became the central conflict of my generation. Those of us who opposed it felt that the cost, mental, emotion, physical, was not worth any possible outcome. Is that the best possible way to evaluate the “worthiness” of war? I do not know. All I know is that those who live with the after effects of war never, ever get away from them.

It has taken a large part of my life to learn the meanings of all those early words. I cannot remember a time when I did not know that my family, parents and older brother, were rescued from the Los Baños internment camp on the day they were to be executed. Though, I always knew this, it was not dramatically celebrated, only quietly noted. The rescue occurred on the same day as the astounding photograph of the soldiers raising the American flag on Iwo Jima. Slowly, I have learned the full story of the attack on the Philippine Islands hours after Pearl Harbor, the miraculous survival of my mother and eleven-month-old brother of the bombs, the round up by the Japanese of civilians, the years of increasing deprivation, malnutrition, and declining health before that wonderful rescue and escape on the Amtraks across Laguna de Bay. Fifty-eight years to the day after the rescue our first grandchild was born. How I wish her great-grandparents could have lived to know that.

Bookends are items we use to prop up volumes of learning. I find it heartrending that violence marks the beginnings and endings of my life. Of course, I am far from alone in this feeling. I can only ask why does the world seem to think that the answer to disagreement is violence? I know some of the answers: the grasp for power, money, land, resources. Only those who operate above the fray can truly believe that the resort to violence actually solves anything.

Photo of 2 men, a woman on crutches, and young boy
A few days after liberation

A few days after liberation

 

Liz Wilbur taught English and American history at Nelson County High School for twenty-six years. She is the mother of two and grandmother of three.

 

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