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                            Retirement Talk for Boomers, Seniors, and Retirees

Episode 074  War Stories

           I come from a family of six children and we had six ourselves so I know about changing diapers and driving through the night to the hospital or the police station. Large and small emergencies came and went and life went on. Some of these events became part of family history, usually distorted in favor of whoever was telling the story.

           One of our milder catastrophes was when little Mike and David jumped from the loft in the garage onto the convertible top. It bounced like a trampoline the first time but then it split down the middle. They were not hurt but I was scared for them and angry. They seem to treasure the memory, a victory for the underdog. A shared story can form a bond that mere history fails to provide. But some stories are one-sided acccounts that I call war stories.

           Something seemed to touch off such a war story in my Dad’s mind. He would tell us where he was when it began and then described all the carnage that followed in the great Austin flood of 1910. His family lived on the hillside and his dad was working in the woods nearby. The small stream had been dammed years before and then the dam was raised to provide more water for the paper mill. A section of the dam gave way and the flood surged through the town.

           There had been warnings but people were assured that the dam could not break. One woman decided that if it did fail, she would climb under the mattress and ride it out if her house was swept away. It was a good plan and she survived.

My Dad described this drama to all of us at regular intervals. He was ten years old when it occurred and it was probably the most exciting thing that ever happened to him. It was like a war story, interesting the first time told but with a short shelf life except among other veterans. He attended a picnic for the survivors fifty years later and they all had a great time.                  

           James Thurber wrote a funny story about the panic in Columbus, Ohio when someone ran down the street shouting “The Dam’s Broken”. He described the men, women, children and dogs fleeing the non-existent deluge. There was no flood. The story was his joke about Columbus being a dull place to grow up.

           My childhood stories include the axe murderer who lived around the corner, the bootlegger who lived across the street, the steam railroads that surrounded our house, walking around in the sewer system and exploring vacant houses and factories. I retell these events to other old men but try not to inflict them on the children.

           My two-year-old grandchild is great fun. We observe each other closely and take turns eating or making things or hiding from each other. We explore whatever comes into our path.  When accidents occur, we do what we can to fix it and move on. The emphasis is on the present.

           Not all kids are so self-assured. Some parents are overprotective. All of us are sometimes negligent. If the dam breaks and people are swept away, what should we think? The world can be a scary place but we learn to be courageous by seeing how others respond to dangers and failures.

           Some of our kids go off too soon to real wars and return with stories they cannot tell because we would not believe them. They are left with only their buddies to share their stories. Even if spared a war experience, the generations are separated by changes in music and communications and the economy. I am of the Great Depression generation. My children are Baby Boomers, theirs are Generation X and it goes on.

           The elders of the tribe once taught the survival traditions but many of us are turning to our children to learn new ways of surviving in the computer age. Playing with a grandchild is a start. War stories should be told only on request! It pays to be a good listener.

 This is Dick Smith