pWdumaNjA-6CEEBhRoD5euxNETs When All This Actual Life Played Out: Unknown

20 October 2015


Ieper (Ypres), Belgium
10 July 2012

Although I had about a thousand other things to do today, I spent a great deal of time staring at 3 photos of the spouse's great uncle. I've stared at those photos before, over the course of the nearly 30 years since they first came to my attention. I've heard stories, mainly how he was beloved by his younger sister, the spouse's grandmother. How, after he was lost, her life was never quite the same.

For almost 30 years, I've stared at those photos, and marveled over this man's beauty. He was a stunningly handsome man. I've wondered at those photos, and pity tugged at me, because his story, like so many of that time, is so utterly tragic.

Lost, strayed, stolen. Like so many of his generation.

When we were in Belgium three years ago, I couldn't help but think of him. Because like so many of his generation, he was there, somewhere. He, like so many others, is lost. Truly lost. He died on a battlefield and was never found again. For all any of us know, the "unknown warrior" on the left is him.

We were talking about him last night and about a newspaper article I happened on about the discovery of an almost perfectly preserved World War I trench. The spouse was outraged that no family members of the trench's occupants had appeared for their interment.

"Most of them were young men," I told him. "They likely died without issue. No children, no heirs."

Like his great uncle. Who probably died before his 21st birthday. Died younger than my own son, his great great nephew, is now.

I don't know anything about the kind of man he was. I only know that he was loved by his teenaged sister. I know that he stood proudly in his uniform. I can't explain why I feel that he deserves to be remembered, why he should be more than a line in a old book and three photos. Perhaps it's because I look at him, and think about my own brothers and my own cousins who fought in wars. Because I know the kind of men they are and were: proud, honorable, dedicated, and conflicted about fighting. Because had they been lost, they would have been worthy of remembrance. Perhaps it's because I remember standing at the Menin Gate and reading all the names of the lost, and weeping for each of the families behind those names while a group of school children sang "O Canada."

Perhaps it's just because war is so wrong and seems so inevitable and no one ever wins.

Spurred on by the spouse, I started to look. I found his entry in the massive casualty list published by the Germans in 1917. I started to reconstruct. He had a combat ribbon awarded by the duchy of his birth, so we know he saw more than one battle. We have numbers that are still meaningless. Was he an NCO or officer candidate?

Does it matter that I find him, a young man who disappeared 100 years ago? Technically, no. The sister who loved him so died 25 years ago. Of the children she had, one has died, one wouldn't understand, and the youngest is now 80, so there is no imperative there.

But his story, however brief, interests me, and I think, the spouse. And it grieves me to think that his entire life has been boiled down to a single line in a book, punctuated at the end by "vermisst."

Tech stuff: Taken with my Nikon D40. When I was young and the world didn't carry shades of grey, it was very easy to determine who was good and who was bad. Then I grew up, and learned that there is good and bad on every side. It's amazing how this perspective both complicates and uncomplicates life. People are people.

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