For my father,
John William Pennington
12/29/1926 – 12/10/1994.
US Navy WWII; USAF Korea, Vietnam
There are two kinds of dead in war: those who die and those who live. Those who die stay dead; those who live die again and again and again until, someday, they too stay dead.
He died in World War II during the Battle of Okinawa, but lived another forty-nine years filled with anger that he did not die in the war and stay dead. He returned an angry old man of nineteen, no longer possessed of that youthful innocence, naiveté, and un-sensed sense of immortality that lead the young to reckless deeds and derring-do. He lay in bed at night praying he would not wake in the morning so he would not have to die again.
He came home from war understanding mortality, the transitory nature of life, what death felt like and smelled like. What death looked like. He stared death in the eye as the kamikaze filled his gunsight, then overflowed the gunsight, growing larger and larger, the angel of death riding an iron steed at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Tunnel vision: when the mind detaches from the body and shuts out the sights and sounds of the world until the sole object one sees at the end of the long, dark tunnel becomes his world.
The deadly aircraft grew larger and pushed life and fear from his mind, becoming an object of wonder as time slowed to a crawl, distorting the action of his gun and motion of its shells. He watched the shells floating into and past the oncoming aircraft. Then, as time dissolved and body and life became meaningless, he saw into the eyes of the man behind the kamikaze’s windscreen. He knew then they would die together, their bodies flying apart and spattering onto his shipmates. How slow death approached. How personal. How beautiful. He didn’t fear dying: death’s cold grip already held him. He no longer felt his body; only his mind, detached from temporal awareness, still existed. His whole being focused on killing the enemy coming to kill him. Had someone told him to run he would not have heard them. Had someone tried to remove him from his gun they could not have pried loose his grip. His white-knuckled finger mashed the trigger. “Death is glorious.”
Inexplicably, the kamikaze veered, showed its brilliant white belly, disintegrating in a hail of shells, and flung itself into another gun, the after-gun, his assigned battle station, where he would have been had the gun captain not sent him forward to assist with another. A miracle, providence, a lucky stroke, it saved his life. That’s what others told him and he believed, for a while.
The kamikaze obliterated the after-gun tub, left it a smoking hole, aircraft, gun, flesh melded into one amid the tangled, twisted, burnt, blackened, smoking steel awash with red that pooled and sloshed with the ship’s list. The scorched and shredded remains of the dead could not be identified: scattered dog tags only identified the names of those men who had manned the great gun, not their remains. The new unknown dead would join the long list of ghost dead every country musters in war. The new unknown dead would be honored at the Tomb of the Unknowns, memorialized in reverent perpetuity by the living. Old men visiting the memorial would remove their caps, tears streaming down their cheeks as they died yet again. Each old man awaiting his final death, knowing it will be the last time he must die.
Then came the unseeing eyes of the dead he would see every day for the rest of his life. The eyes of the dead he would feel watching him, accusing, beseeching. They accused him, his gun, his shells of pushing the enemy aircraft into the after-gun tub. “You should have died, not us.” His gun had caused the death of his buddies, his shipmates. Then he realized his survival did not manifest a miracle, providence, a lucky stroke: his survival was a curse.
The realization marked his first death.
He spent his life after the war in pain and sorrow, lashing out with the anger in his soul at the dead, the unknown dead, the red pool that sloshed around in that part of his mind tortured with the sight of the unseeing eyes of his dead shipmates. The lucky ones. He resented them for making him die over and over again. The heart-rending cry that echoed throughout the remainder of his life was not, “Why them and not me?” but, “God, damn you, why not me?”
The pain and anger that simmered below the surface and which burst forth at the slightest provocation was tempered some by the love and affection hidden within but rarely shared beyond a handshake, an occasional forced “I love you”, a thoughtful act, a life of labor shuffling from job to job to provide for his family. His anger manifested itself in defensiveness. He hated feeling weak, cowardly, unmanly, guilty. He could not bear the thought of not being in control, and became controlling. His anger found vent in verbal abuse he directed at his family as he attempted to establish control over their lives.
His verbal abuse and anger crushed the spirits of his two oldest daughters and left them emotionally damaged. His anger permanently marked the oldest, and killed the younger; it took fifty-eight years to kill her, yet killed her all the same. She turned to alcohol to forget the hurtful words and dull the pain. In the end, the alcohol did not kill her, his anger did. Her poor heart could not take the pain, and gave in even as it sought relief from the pain. Mercifully, if it can be called merciful, his anger had mostly spent itself before the third child, a son, entered the world. The son and two younger daughters were spared the worst of his anger even as he continued to suffer the effects of the war that cheated him of his life.
His anger and depression, both symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, emotionally damaged one daughter and led to the death of another. His son, after nearly a lifetime of questioning the anger, found the answers and then the eloquence to pen these words, not with animosity and hate, but with love and understanding.
Love and understanding: these are the son’s anti-anger, anti-hate. These are the son’s words of love and understanding.
“I understand, Dad. I understand your life now, your pain and anger. I understand the ghosts of the unknown dead, the unseeing eyes of those pursuing you across time, the red pool sloshing in the ship’s list. I understand your deaths, every day of your post-war life for forty-nine years. All eighteen thousand two hundred and fifty of them.”