As a cub reporter, I was sent to interview World War II veterans.
The interviews were going well, but there was one veteran — an older man in a wheelchair — not really participating. I tried to reel him into the conversation. He resisted.
Other veterans began to goad the man, telling me that he and his troop were some of the first to enter a German concentration camp.
“People need to know,” one man urged.
As the interview wrapped up and the men began to leave, I shifted to sit beside the veteran in the wheelchair.
“Is what the others said true?” I asked. “Were you one of the first Americans to enter a concentration camp?”
The man nodded and met my gaze. I could tell he was hesitant to talk, but I was young and ambitious, anxious to make a name for myself. So, I pressed him.
He began with a strong voice, his eyes sparkling with memories of camaraderie with his Army buddies. The group was happy, even ecstatic, he said, to be “liberators.”
As he began to talk about arriving at the prison, and the people there, his voice quaked. He was describing walking into barracks where prisoners, humans were “stored,” and contrasting those conditions with how their captors had lived, when he emotionally broke. As his eyes filled, he tried to keep speaking.
Specifically, he was discussing the many uses Nazi soldiers found for pieces of human flesh. Tears streamed down his cheeks and his head fell forward. I sat quietly beside him as he sobbed, gusts of breath rocking his chest. After several minutes, with his head still downturned, he whispered, “I can’t. I just can’t.”
The interview was a turning point in my life.
Having grown up mourning a brother lost in Vietnam, I’d thought the worst thing that could happen to a soldier was coming home in a body bag.
The veteran who couldn’t give voice to the atrocities of white supremacy taught me that my father, a WWII veteran with a scar running nearly the full length of his leg, was not alone in his unwillingness to rehash war experiences — and for good reason.
This past week, as hate surged in Virginia and President Donald Trump offered a smoke screen, my thoughts centered on the hundreds of veterans I’ve had the honor of interviewing, a strong man broken by the obscenity of white supremacy, and all the times my father refused to explain his scar.
It’s a comfort, albeit small and bittersweet, that so many of the Greatest Generation were not alive to witness a vulgar horde of self-proclaimed Nazis chanting and marching, torches held high, through an American city.
Not the least bit comforting is the current president’s lack of historical knowledge or understanding, and his willingness to spark a new American era of willful moral ambiguity.
“Fine people” do not believe one type of human is better or deserves better. “Fine people” do not light torches, march as Nazis and chant in unison for the destruction of those who do not look or believe like themselves.
When the ignorance of hate is hellbent on destroying us all, “fine people” answer, sometimes through tears, but always unequivocally.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on August 19, 2017. Photo credit: KC McGinnis/The Gazette