Fifteen months on the road. Fifteen months of almost daily contact with the public in relation to this tour. Fifteen months of opinions right, left, up and down. What has probably stunned me more than anything is the readiness of so many people to dismiss another person for their ideology, religion, -any number of reasons. Why? Many times it’s fear of the unknown, fear of change. Fear of understanding because “you” don’t look or act like me. I sit and listen because that’s part of my journey. I listen. And ponder.
Since starting this tour in my hometown of Amherst Massachusetts, I’ve joked that I’m like the Lucy Van Pelt character in the Peanuts comic strip, sitting behind a crate on a sidewalk, sign overheard: “Psychiatric help. Five cents”. People want to sit down and talk about their lives, mostly related to the Second World War. Sometimes not. Most of the time, it’s relating a story about a loved one. If, however, it’s something veering into the ugly, a quagmire, unlike Lucy, I don’t offer advice. Nor do I take the nickel.
Today I was thrown by comments from one of the volunteers I have come to know over the past several months. When World War II ended he was only four years old. But he remembers growing up hearing stories from his father about the war and much of it laced with hatred toward a former enemy. This man, in his early eighties, told me about his love of airplanes, building static and flying models, many of them from the World War II era. It’s a hobby he’s done all his life. “But,” he continued.”I can’t bring myself to build either a Japanese or German plane because of all the Americans they killed.” Since he leads many tours for children around the museum, I know he takes an educator’s role seriously. But this sudden revelation of a huge barrier caught me off guard. “Have you read A Higher Call?” I asked, the story about a German fighter pilot who decides to spare the lives of an American B-17 crew in their severely crippled aircraft, struggling to make it out of Germany back to their base in England. The remarkable end to the story was that decades after the war’s end, the bomber pilot and German pilot finally met. And became friends. This volunteer had not read the book. The conversation ended with a phone call from his wife and a quick wave “see you later.”
It’s not my position to tell someone they’re wrong or what to do. I kept thinking of what would go through this man’s mind if he actually started building one of these enemy planes. Would he find understanding and solace? Many do not want to consider that path. There is safety in anger and prejudice because sometimes simply it has become part of the fabric of that person’s being. I hate, therefore I am.
Iva Toguri aka Tokyo Rose. Demonized for decades, finally vindicated by President Gerald Ford in 1978. But the hatred toward her lingers in much of the public perception. The other day, a busy day at the museum, a man walking by seemingly on a mission, praised my paintings. Then, stopping in front of Iva Toguri’s portrait, let loose a barrage of epithets that threw me. “And if my father (WW II era) saw this, he’d rip it off the wall!,” this man finished, visibly angry.
Like a patient teacher with a little flair for the dramatic, I stood in front of him, wagged my finger and said: “With no disrespect to your father, his information is all propaganda -not true.” A barrier had been thrown between us, but I kept chipping away, not with anger, but with facts. In the end, this man thanked me for enlightening him. That’s all I can do.
Shortly after arriving in Amherst in May 2013, nasty comments deriding my exhibit for “glorifying war” started appearing in my guest book. Within weeks, I realized these comments were coming from people under the age of thirty who believe naively in the 70s hippie lingo “Make love, not war”. These young people put up a barrier to knowledge, remaining self-righteously smug and ignorant. They did not want to learn about history. They saw themselves as right. I was wrong. All I wanted was for them to sit down with some veterans from World War Two and actually listen.
That said, I was recounting today to someone my age, the remarkably thoughtful suggestion from a young woman under the age of thirty and from Amherst. She had read Tim O’Brian’s book The Things They Carried urging me to read it. Tim O’Brian served in Vietnam. I had read some of O’Brian’s other books on Vietnam, but this one was the most gut-wrenchingly honest books about what combat does to people.
The push-back I got from my work reflected the Rip Van Winkle mindset that for many in that town, still exists. It was a haven of anti-war protests like most of the college and university towns and cities around the country in the 1970s. It still is. The acronym SNAFU came about in World War Two but applied to the Vietnam War as well: “Situation Normal. All Fucked Up.” It applies to all wars.
I thanked that young woman for her suggestion. She was born long after the war had ended and yet there was a worldliness to her that exceeded her age. I think of her often when confronted by those with decades-old prejudices. She became a model for me in understanding something about truth. Why do we feel anger toward something that’s different? Is it fear? Or are we so set in our ways, we don’t want to listen to the truth because we need the anger as an anchor, a center? They say that truth will set us free. I truly believe that. I try to listen and learn every day. But I won’t be sucked into someone else’s anger, their barrier toward tranquility. Naive? Maybe. I’m not here to change the world. Well,… maybe I am.