When I graduated from Marine Corps boot camp in 2008, my grandfather boomingly sang the Marine Corps hymn at me when I walked up to greet him. We stood in the driveway singing it together, trying to sing over each other. He was in the Navy during World War II and was a machine gunner on the back of the Marine airplanes during the island hopping campaign in the Pacific. He was delivering film of the bomb dropping carnage that America waged on the Pacific islands and machine gunner was a secondary role he had been thrown into as a young 19 year old. He told me this only after I graduated boot camp. As a child, I knew he was in the Navy, but I didn’t know what he did or saw. He didn’t talk about it, and I didn’t know enough to ask. He and I spoke after I became a Marine and he told me stories that left me open-mouthed. But they were stories of the women of the Pacific. “Don’t tell your Nana.” He didn’t talk about the war. “Marines were some of the hardest and bravest men, and I’m proud you are a Marine.”
Papa died after I got back from Afghanistan in 2010. I hadn’t been home yet to see him and the last few years of his life were marred by dementia. When I got back, he was probably the only person in my family that could help me come to terms with what I saw. His perspective probably would have helped me realize that the world has shitty stuff happen and it’s possible to continue life. However, we never got to speak about the wars, and I regret that immensely. The memories and stories that people hold in their minds are capable of giving perspective and changing the way people think. When a person dies, they take all of their experience and knowledge with them unless they have recorded their stories in some manner. My Papa didn’t talk about the war and he didn’t write about it. So all of that experience, all of that exposure, it is gone, never to be regained.
That is the saddest part of death to me. Our experiences mean nothing after we’ve died unless we have passed them along through storytelling, writing, and other creative works. The experiences that were and the experiences that could have been are gone when a person dies. Think of what goes through your mind, think of what you understand. If you die, who will know how intricately you think? Who will know that trick you do to make a task in your life easier? Documentation matters and documentation changes lives.
I work with a lot of smart…and old…people. These men have so much knowledge about network engineering that it blows my mind when I engineer next to them. I was sitting at work, designing something, with a particularly older baby boomer. He was speaking and teaching me higher level engineering and I looked over and thought, “He is going to die soon and all of that information will be gone.” I asked why he didn’t speak up more or force information onto me and he said, “If you wanted to know, you would ask.” That makes me sad. This man has engineered in Iraq and Afghanistan and his stories are interesting and technical and I always learn so much when he speaks. He reminds me of my grandfather in ways and I want him to speak up about the time his sleeping area was blown up while he was troubleshooting.
We need to share with each other so we can learn from each other and hopefully make fewer mistakes than those around us as we hear and grow. The documentation, the storytelling, it should be read and reread, told and retold, so our stories and our memories are not lost. Live on through creative and technical works and don’t let yourself be lost completely when you “join the great majority.”