Casualties of War

When I was growing up, a man who lived just down the street from us spent almost all his time watering his lawn. From the last of the spring snowmelt to late in the fall, he could be seen waving a weakly running hose back and forth over the grass on his corner lot, even it it was raining. I was vaguely frightened of him, for no reason. I’d never spoken to him, nor he to me, but I found his empty expression unsettling. 

People said he had been “shell shocked” during World War I. I didn’t understand what that was and I know now we’d call it PTSD. By the mid fifties, people no longer referred to “The Great War”, we’d had another. The thought of a young man from a very small town with no world experience sent to fight in the trenches in Europe is terrible for me to consider. He had a wife. No children, but a wife.  Her child became the man she married. For better or worse. Is that what she thought?

What had he seen to make him become the vacant man who had been her young husband?. She must have heard the whispers. Worried when the neighborhood kids shot off fireworks that sounded like gunshots. Kept him inside during the Fourth of July. I used to see her on constant alert, watching from a window or through the screen door, while he watered the grass.

Another man, another war. This man worked on a cranberry marsh owned by my father. He had come home from Germany distant and remote, and spent his spare time building stone towers deep in the woods. He had had a brother. Both were sent to war in the nineteen forties. The other did not come back. He was officially listed as MIA and no trace of him found. The thing that seemed to bother their mother more than anything was, ten years after he’d been killed, she had had no body to bury. No grave to visit. Were the stone towers his brother built, some sort of tribute? A marker for a brother who never had one? One time when I was at their house, his mother sat crying in the living room. I was around seven years old and I remember my mother telling the woman maybe he was in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, DC. My mother seemed to think this might somehow be a comfort to the woman. It wasn’t. 


Photo courtesy Ben_Kerckx at


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