FOR GENERATIONS of Americans the hearth has symbolized home —a sanctuary of warmth, comfort and security where loved ones gather or we can be alone with our thoughts. The space above the hearth is usually of particular importance, and the mantel often displays objects and images of special meaning to the people who know the place as home.
In the early 1940s my family reserved this place of honor for a series of photos, each lovingly framed and featuring a portrait of a young man in uniform. I was too young to fully understand what was going on in the world at the time, but I knew that the photos had special meaning—those young men, and others like them, were far away and in great danger. And my life as I knew it somehow depended on what they were doing out there.
It was World War II, and four of my mother’s brothers were overseas. But she worried most about the second youngest, Jake, who was a sergeant in the Marines and was among the first ashore in some of the Pacific War’s bloodiest battles. His safety was always a concern and news of him was always vague. His letters arrived weeks after he wrote them and were cut full of censoring holes. Mom kept a scrapbook of his letters and articles clipped from newspapers, some telling of conduct that earned him medals and other distinctions.
My uncles all came home safely, some with wounds, but Jake’s survival was a real blessing. He was wounded on Saipan and returned at war’s end to the little town in Illinois where he grew up. He married there, built a fine brick house with a fire-place and mantel, and raised a family. He didn’t talk much about the war afterward, but it was never far from him, either. In addition to his private memories, there was a documentary film made on Tarawa that showed him charging into enemy fire with his ,buddies. He was the one carrying a little shovel in his left hand. I saw that film more often than I saw Jake. To me he was a hero of the first order.
Over the years, family trips to Illinois always included a short visit with Jake, but it wasn’t until about a year ago that I actually stayed at his house and got down to serious conversation about the war. I expected to hear about battles, but Jake’s real story was of the men in his unit. His clear, vivid descriptions brought each of them to life in my mind. As the days passed, I became more and more familiar with the individual guys, and I did my best not to show my feelings whenever his story revealed that one of them didn’t make it home.
But these events took place long ago, have faded into well-worn history and are of little importance to our lives today. Or are they?
History was not a topic when I called Jake last Christmas Eve, even though I really wanted to thank him for what he and his buddies had gone through. It probably wasn’t necessary, anyway. His son and twin daughters were arriving for the holidays with their families, gathering to celebrate in the house he built with his own hands. It was not a time for thoughts of times long past and people who live on only in memory. Yet I couldn’t help thinking that our freedom to enjoy our cozy homes surely would have been lost but for the sacrifices they made so many years ago.
Their energy lives on Maybe you can sense a little of it when you re front of your bungalow hearth and feel its comforting warmth.
Looking forward to hearing from you,
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