I am lucky enough to still have four living grandparents. This is something I’ve never taken for granted, because not only were they great for playing board games and serving me second helpings of dessert when I was a kid, but they always were and continue to be excellent storytellers. Not only that, but their own personal histories are so varied and interesting.
Unsurprisingly, given their generation, my grandparents’ early lives were touched by war in ways larger than I can imagine. My paternal grandmother, for example, lost her first husband in World War II. While she was home raising their two children by herself, her future second husband—my dad’s dad—was training Navy pilots for combat overseas. Ten years later, when the war was over and Europe was struggling to rebuild, my maternal grandfather was stationed in France, where he claims to have done little more than play baseball with his fellow recruits (though I have a feeling this may be an embellishment for the sake of the story).
Whether you have an uncle who fought overseas or a grandmother who grew a victory garden at home, chances are you know someone whose life has been directly impacted by war. This Memorial Day, take the time to honor those who gave their lives for our country by listening to the stories of those who are around to tell them. Below are some questions to help get your conversation started. If you want you can even break out a notepad, tape recorder, or video camera and preserve the stories for future generations.
- If you joined the military by choice, why? What did you hope to achieve by enlisting, and how did your family respond? If you were drafted, how did you feel about having to go into the service?
- When you left home, what were your good-byes like?
- Where did you go for basic training? What was the hardest part? What friendships do you remember from that time?
- What were some of the greatest challenges you encountered overall?
- What was your experience of combat? What helped you get through it? What have been the effects on you and on your family?
- What changes did you feel in yourself as you went through these experiences?
- What was military food like? Describe a typical meal. Is there anything you won’t eat now because of your years in the service?
- Who were your friends? What did you do together when you weren’t on the front lines? Have you stayed friends?
- What were the hardest physical challenges? How did you cope?
- Were you ever wounded? How did your injury happen, and how and where were you cared for afterward?
- Were any of your friends wounded or killed in combat? How did those losses affect you in the field? How do they affect you now?
- Who inspired you during your service? How?
- How has your military experience shaped the person you are today?
For more about interviewing friends and loved ones, pick up a copy of The Oral History Workshop by Cynthia Hart with Lisa Samson.