Every Labor Day, when I hear Air Show jets cauterize the city sky — so loud that I flinch as conversations drown out — my mind turns to Great-Uncle Charlie.
Grandma Sheila was 6 when her brother went to fight in what was called the Great War. She must have looked up to him, literally and figuratively, as he stood in his trim wool uniform and gleaming bronze buttons, saying his goodbyes.
Then one day, her parents sat her down and gave her the news. Charlie would not be coming home. He had died in the war. What she felt must have been beyond words.
In 1967, 50 years later, Sheila opened a curious letter from the Veterans Administration. It was a notice that Charlie had passed away in a VA hospital, likely a victim of "shell shock" — what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.
I imagine her falling into a chair, re-reading the letter in disbelief. Her brother had been alive the whole time.
She was beside herself with grief. Everyone had pretended he was dead. Her parents had passed away, so she could never ask them why. To think that no one in the family ever visited him. Why had they lied?
My mother has carried my grandmother's story since before I was born. She married a Vietnam veteran and never allowed toy guns to be in our house.
Uncle Charlie's story is one reason why I've spent a handful of the last 10 Labor Days in the shadow of the jets, talking to veterans and civilian survivors of war at the Peace Show, a celebration of nonviolence held as an alternative to the Cleveland National Air Show and its cozy relationship with the U.S. military.
The Peace Show resembles a street fair, set downtown near the famous Free Stamp in Willard Park, overlooking Lake Erie. Many people who come to the park to view the planes flying overhead also use the Peace Show port-a-potty and end up getting their kids free face-painting or folded paper cranes. Along the sidewalk, they pass progressive groups presiding over tchotchke-packed tables and hear, from a main stage, speakers, local bands and poets.
An obstacle course features hay bales and information stations teaching kids about nonviolence. Some years, single boots stand in rows along the lawn, each boot with a little sign that carries the name of a soldier killed in war.
Though the Peace Show gathered more than 1,000 people during the height of the Iraq War, it will not happen at all this year. While the Air Show attracts 70,000 paying spectators annually, the Peace Show's organizers had trouble coming up with $3,000 for permits, portable toilets and the stage.
In the years I've talked to and interviewed participants in the Peace Show, I've discovered that many of the strongest opponents of war are its military and civilian survivors. I think of Lou Pumphrey, who witnesses for peace by wearing his Army uniform from Vietnam and carrying his peace flag on his shoulder. He talks to anyone who will listen about seeing his lieutenant killed and learning of the lies that mire wars.
I think of Yoshiko Ikuta, who worked in an orphanage during the Second World War in Japan and had to comfort the orphans who'd waken from bad dreams. In Kyoto, later in the war, she would see "children who were skin and bones because of malnutrition, not knowing where their parents are, and begging for food." She remembers flies sucking at the sores on their skin.
"This is the reality of war," she says. "I don't want to see it ever again. That's why I don't watch any war movies, because I don't want flashbacks."
And I think of Leonard Shelton, an African-American veteran of multiple wars, who wasn't ready to tell his story. "I'm sure you'll want to hear what I have to say," he says, "but my head just isn't straight enough to submit to an interview yet."
T.S. Eliot wrote: "Human kind cannot bear very much reality." We don't like to hear of war undoing so many, but if we don't listen to what its military and civilian veterans tell us, we risk repeating the same mistakes.
Of course, I share your skepticism. Nonviolence is a harder path than war-making. It requires great discipline and spiritual resolve, and its adherents are ill-funded.
One Labor Day, a friend of mine, looking up at the jets, confided that he always loved air shows. There is something truly awesome about flight, the gravity-defying displays of technological mastery.
Something in us seems to crave the awe of domination. We forget that these jets kill from a distance that reduces people to targets and collateral damage — not human beings. Can any small act of demonstration compete with the terrifying power of jets and their eardrum-blistering screams? We go mute when they pass over.
The people who organized and attended the Peace Show remind us that we must be wary of our own awe of power, that military might is often misused and that people who suffer our wars in their countries run in terror when our jets pass over.
Because we never know whether the stories we're told are true, I recently looked in an ancestry database to find out what I could about Uncle Charlie. I found his registration card for World War I and census records from 1920 and 1930, in which he was listed, in careful cursive, as "patient" in two different hospitals.
There were many, many names alongside Charlie's. Like those empty boots, they had disappeared from their pre-war lives. How many Charlies were pronounced dead before their time, silenced out of family shame, confusion or despair?
This is all I know about Charlie. According to the registration card, he had "nasal trouble." His eyes were blue and his hair was brown. He was 5-foot-7 and listed himself as "slender." He worked at Western Union prior to his service. After 50 years in a Veterans Administration hospital, he died in 1967, just as another war was reaching its fever pitch.