by JAMIE PARSELL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
I was in elementary school when I interviewed my great uncle Roy for an upcoming history report. A World War II Army veteran, he sketched together enough for my report and then corrected my mistakes. I had a hard time spelling the word “hospital.” But the entire time, I stared at his pants leg because underneath was an artificial limb. It was no secret he lost his leg in WW II. As a child, I was in awe of my great uncle; he was tall and distinguished, even with a slight limp. I was also fascinated in the way most children are of older relatives, especially ones that lived in neighboring states. It was my first interview and remains a favorite for sentimental reasons. I only wish I had a copy of my history report. I would love to look back and see what I wrote about my great uncle, who still lives in Ohio.
I didn’t quite grasp the importance of his story back then. Wars and battles were images only seen in history books. You memorized dates and names of battles. School books didn’t list fallen soldiers either. I am not sure if I am able to comprehend a story like his. To me, it will always be one of those “you had to be there.” Uncle Roy and others like him belonged to an exclusive club, one forged together by events I only memorized out of a school book. When I began my career as a journalist, I interviewed a few more veterans and even a Rosie the Riveter. On the day I interviewed Cora Parsons Steele about her experiences as a riveter, I stayed for hours. She had so many memories inside her townhouse. My favorite was a bracelet her husband made from a Japanese Zero plan during WW II. It looked heavy on her dainty wrist. Steele also brought out old photographs and letters. She said the war effort for women depended on giving blood, working in factories and writing soldiers from home. At one time, she corresponded with eight or nine different soldiers — she said they were all just good friends — before she met her husband Roy. She still has those letters, and photos as well. Not all of them made it home, she said. I looked at the photographs of the handsome young men with a heavy heart; there wasn’t anything I could do or say. I was almost speechless, but thankful, not wordless. I wrote the 2011 lifestyle story about Cora with a feeling of great responsibility.
Interviews aren’t always easy. Some people love to talk, others squirm and analyze their answers. There has been good chats and talks, like the one with Cora, and thoughtful, quiet interviews with veterans. J.D. Rhodes, through the help of his wife, discovered gardening as a way to deal with his personal struggles. His wife encouraged the new hobby and the first year, they planted 87 rose bushes. Then he started planting tree day lilies that grew 6-foot tall. When his wife passed away in 2004, he gave up his gardens, only to discover he needed the hobby to properly grieve for his wife. One day, he brought me four or five lily blooms to the Daily Telegraph office. The scent filled up the newsroom for days. Mr. Rhodes’ story appeared in the spring 2012 issue of Prerogative Magazine. My favorite part of the story is how he would pick roses before work. For every rose, his wife would give him a kiss. Twenty-seven roses meant 27 kisses.
Every veteran or Rosie the Riveter has a story to tell, but not all share their past with the world. From elementary school to now, there is a responsibility to be accurate and respectful. It is my job to record their story for future generations because it was their job to defend our country and help with the war effort. On Memorial Day, there will be a chance to read about a soldier in a newspaper, magazine or on the Internet. Like me, you might not understand, or comprehend the words on the page. My great uncle Roy knew this when I interviewed him in elementary school. Looking back, he took great care to edit my work. I wonder if he knew I would grow up to be a writer. Or maybe he wanted to show me how I could honor those who played an important role in freedom — with stories and words.
Jamie Parsell is the lifestyle editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @BDTParsell.