One of the last conversations I ever had with my nana was about her life as an Army wife, which started in 1951 when she was 21 years old.
When we talked, Sue Duffy was 89 and I was 25. She told me about how, after their June wedding, my papa’s car battery died. So, in her gown, she climbed out of the passenger’s seat to help push the car to an Irish pub.
We talked about the pranks my 3-year-old dad, Tim, would play on their neighbors in 1959 when they lived on an Army base called Presidio in San Francisco.
When they were stationed in Germany — and Papa, whose name was Bill, was a field artillery commander — Nana told me she loaded her four young kids onto a train so they could see what life was like in Soviet-occupied East Berlin. My dad remembers waving to gruff-looking guards through the train’s windows, and he swears he saw a few of them smile back.
On Memorial Day, we’re supposed to take a moment to remember all of the people who’ve died while serving in the United States armed forces. But we need stories to really remember. If we’re lucky, those are recorded by family, journalists or historians before a person’s gone.
If you want to hear your own family’s stories, usually you just have to ask.
Firsthand accounts of history aren’t just interesting, they also help inform researchers, teachers and future generations about our nation’s past. At the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the Veterans History Project has been collecting stories and artifacts of wartime veterans and civilians since 2000.
Think about the adults in your family — your great-grandparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, even older cousins. How old are they? If you have a grandfather who’s older than 70, maybe he served in the Vietnam War. If he’s passed away, I bet his kids (your parents) remember something about that time. Maybe you have a 37-year-old cousin who joined the Air Force right after Sept. 11, or an older sibling who’s in the Iowa National Guard.
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Every one of them has at least one good story to tell you. You should ask to hear it sooner rather than later — and maybe it will be (almost) as interesting as one of Nana’s.
To get started, get some details out of the way. What conflict happened during their lifetime? How old were they? Where did they live?
Then ask these deeper questions, and just listen.
• What was the most interesting thing you saw or did while you were in the military?
• Who was the most influential person you met during your service?
• What was the funniest thing that happened while you were enlisted?
• What is one thing you look back on now that makes you think, “I can’t believe I actually did that”?
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