Tuesday, March 6, 2012

War Jitters

I sketched a man sitting alone in the diner yesterday.

He noticed me drawing him and I invited him to join us at our booth. As he watched me draw, he started telling his story. 

The son of a minister, he joined the military at the end of World War 2. He saw the concentration camps, ruined cities in Germany, and starving, angry people. 

Sometimes a little thing -- a noise, or a TV show -- will snap him back into those memories. Once he woke up in the middle of the night with a bad dream. In his sleep he threw his arms out wide and hit his wife, so bad that she had to go to the hospital. He was very sorry, and she understood, but still he thinks about it all the time, and now he takes medication to calm himself.

Those guys in Washington talk about war like it’s easy, he said. They send young people over to do terrible things. And if the young soldiers live, they often come back missing a leg or an arm. And then they’ve got the horrors of war in their heads all the rest of their lives, he said.

The waitress came and refilled our coffee. “Here I am, ruining this beautiful day,” the man said. 

"Not at all, it’s OK," I said. 

The sun streamed in through the windows. A little bit of snow clung beneath the shadows of the bushes outside. 


30 comments:

Dan Gurney said...

That's a very touching story, one worth telling. Thank you for passing this fellow's story along to Gurney Journey readers.

I have a number of friends my age who still carry deep psychological wounds from the Vietnam war. The costs of war are impossible to account for, but are much higher than war planners can imagine.

Adina Henderson said...

You received the value of being able to sketch him, but I think he received the greater value of having you listen to him with respect. Well done.

My Pen Name said...

I hope he finds some peace.

It's always fascinated me how we often watch such things for 'entertainment' - think about the average video game or the popularity of war/action and horror movies.

Malleus said...

If he had not gone to fight, we all would be living the worse nightmare of NAZI rule. My thanks to him and my Dad and all the others who sacrificed their lives and happiness for us.

Glenn Keelan said...

Very touching James. Thank you for sharing this story. I live and work in Berlin, Germany and have met many people who can share the same experiences.

Jamal said...

Reading what the old man told you. Add so much more to your sketch Gurney.

Adina, you said it.

Kenneth said...

Really touching. Looks like such a cozy little diner.

Celia said...

Thanks for posting this man's story, and for the beautiful sketch. Being heard is a beautiful gift to receive.

casey sattler said...

It's great just sitting sometimes and drawing people; when they share a bit of themselves -- it makes the drawing even better...

Doug said...

How to stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie, published in 1948, is a great book dealing with how to refocus your mind on the day at hand and positive side of life. I wish this man could read a copy, there are many references to people who have survived war.

It is a sad and touching story James, I thought it was very generous of you to bring us back to the peace and beauty of life with your description of the sun and the snow.

Live in "day-tight compartments."- Sir William Osler

"Every day is a new life to a wise man"- unknown to me.

"Today is our most precious possession, our only sure possession."-Dante

Sav said...

This is so grungey and awesome. A surprising change of pace from your standard works.

Julian Wong said...

Beautiful.

Bill Gathen said...

Just finished reading "Losing The War" by Lee Sandlin in Ira Glass's collection "The New Kings of Nonfiction", which deals at great length with these hidden scars in the context of World War II, in a similar style to your post.

Heart-wrenching stories that veterans often don't talk about because they're simply too painful: an honor to have him open up to you like that. The bonding power of art!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi James .. War anywhere is cruel - and some atrocities are just too awful .. WW1 and WW2 were just dreadful and remain with those who fought. The images from Syria and video clippage we've seen here - is even worse and I mean even worse ... how can humans do that to others ..

I hate it - so pleased the chap came and talked to you .. probably helped him a little ...

Humans can be so disappointing, yet have so much to offer ... Hilary

Steve said...

Beautiful story, well-illustrated and well-told. I admire the last few lines and their subtle indirectness. The present is not necessarily "ruined" by memories of a horrible past. If we are able to handle to handle them wisely (and I'm not discounting or downplaying the reality of post-traumatic stress disorder), these memories can deepen our appreciation of the preciousness of this ordinary moment. I echo Adina's comment; you gave at least as much as you received. Malleus raises the troubling counterpoint to absolute pacifism -- an issue I've never fully resolved. My brother was a conscientious objector during Vietnam. Blessedly, my damaged knees gave me a medical deferment. In that war, I felt no confusion as to its misguided aims. But would an entire nation of conscientious objectors have been a good thing in the United States in 1941? It doesn't seem so. I think the main point is, "Those guys in Washington talk about war like it’s easy. " It seems leaders from many countries too easily resort to "force" (the sacrificing of young lives) as the default method of resolving conflict.

Christian said...

Hey Glenn,
I'm also in Berlin.
A couple of weeks ago I had a similar experience: I was invited for a coffee at my seventyfive year old neighbour's place and talking about her passion for horses we suddenly stumbled into her childhood and her still ongoing trauma caused by a massacre she'd experienced that has never been publicly documented at the end of WWII.
Her story struck me so unexpectedly that I could no other but break into tears right at her kitchen table.
You find the heritage of two dictatorships at every corner around here...
Thank you for sharing this touching story, James!!

Glenn, The "Urban sketchers blog" looks teriffic.
Tomorrow evening (Wednesday) is a monthly illustrator's meeting at the "Carabao" in Kreuzburg, starting at 7:00 in the evening. You wanna come sketching?
I'll be going there a bit later, but it's nice and fun folk there.
Would be great exchanging a bit.
Cheers
Christian

MrCachet said...

Even speaking with a WWII veteran is an honor I will never be able to do without. We are losing these men (and women) who gave everything for us.

A wonderful story. It goes with the image you did of him quiet nicely.

Meera Rao said...

Beautiful illustration and a very touching story. I appreciate what the soldiers do --I only wish they never have to fight unnecessary wars.

cegebe said...

Your closing comment makes a very good point. His story does not at all ruin a beautiful day. On the contrary, it reminds us of how important it is to appreciate and enjoy all the joyful, beautiful things we may encounter in life. We shouldn't take them for granted, but if that fact makes us feel bad, we have missed the point.

Maria Hock said...

My son is deployed right now...poignant story and so beautifully drawn. Love your blog.

Alex Ferree said...

Thanks for the story! As a plein-aire artist I often have stories to tell after creating art in public.

People seem to be more open if they see us doing something artistic.

Jim Maddox said...

The solitude of the gentleman in your sketch is such a right-on metaphor for war combat memories. No one can comprehend them but the individual who experiences them.

Then the photo shows interactions with others. Being with people who are caring & in the right setting can be healing.

A nice juxtaposition - thanks for broaching such a normally "swept under the rug" topic on this Artists' site.

Respectively, another combat vet = USMC Corpsman (medic) Vietnam

Maria Arnt said...

Touching story. I wish that people in control of the military would listen to men like him. My husband was in Iraq as a Corpsman for a short 8 months, and had a best-case scenario experience--no combat, no casualties to treat--and it still changed him drastically. It's been almost 2 years since he got out of the Navy and he's still trying to adjust to civilian life. I'm not saying there's nothing worth fighting for, I just think we should take better care of those who do the fighting.

Gayle Bell said...

I’m grateful that you’ve provided such a poignant glimpse into the ravages of war—on-going and never-ending it seems. Even more heart-breaking is the notion that this gentleman/soldier is worried about ruining a beautiful day for those that have never had to experience such horrific realities. The idea of a one-upmanship game, giving more by listening to these realities, doesn’t compute and is offensive in a way. Your portrayal was heart-felt and honest. When war is finally seen truthfully by all as a political tool for brinksmanship and control, perhaps it will end once and for all.

Grace | labor posters said...

Thanks for the touching story. Now I already have my own reason to salute soldiers.

Anonymous said...

I feel guilty about being the only person to have a question about the sketch, but I just can't help myself because I find it so amazing.

What tools did you use? Did you use the Niji brush full of ink to make all the dark lines? Including the gentleman's hair?

James Gurney said...

First, thanks everyone for all the heartfelt reactions. When I did the sketch and the post, I wasn't aware of how deeply it would affect people from so many backgrounds.

Anonymous, I'm glad you asked. I used a Moleskine watercolor sketchbook and a small Schminke watercolor kit. I did the pencil and watercolor lay-in before the gentleman arrived, which is why you see the green tile color going through his back. When he sat down, I drew in the linework last with a Japanese calligraphy pen (sorry don't know the brand). The man's hair is just the white of the paper. I tried to paint around the hair and the highlights.

ghpacific said...

And then there is this project. http://tinyurl.com/7mjje4t

. said...

What's interesting is we all know of this man and his story because of Gurney's sketch. It's quite a powerful tool; a pencil and a kind ear to listen. I forget that sometimes, so wrapped up in whether the nose is too long or the eyes too spread apart. Awesome tale, Gurney - thanks.

Ms. Scott said...

It's great to see how much more meaningful a sketch becomes when there's a story behind it. It's amazing that we're surrounded by all of these amazing people with stories, and so often we never even think twice about what they've been through or how they relate to our own life(like veterans). Awesome post!