The following is a little background on the story of To Catch a Train. It is the first short story I posted on this blog. I thought if you have read it, this post might be of interest to you. If you have not read the story and want to, I strongly suggest that you read it before you read this post. This post gives away details of the story and will take away from the surprise in the story.
I hope you enjoy this post, but please understand up front that it is not my intention to debate the details of any particular campaign or war or make judgments. I only wrote a story.
The True Story of To Catch a Train
In 1942, an uncle I never met went to war in the South Pacific, fighting for the United States against the Japanese in WW II. His unit, the 37th Division, was engaged in some of the most hellish battles of the war, fierce up close fighting with high casualty rates and carnage all around. The unit fought with distinction. During the fighting, my uncle and another soldier, charged a hill with a bazooka and knocked out several gun emplacements. For their efforts and other heroic acts, they were awarded the Silver Star. So just like Uncle Burnett is the story, my real life uncle came home to Ohio at the conclusion of the war a hero.
There are three things that make the story of To Catch a Train the story that it is. The central theme, of course, is the little boy trying to get his Uncle Burnett to talk about the war. This comes straight from my father. He said that you couldn’t get my real life uncle, a real war hero with the medals to prove it, to talk about the war. The story of what my Uncle Lattie might have said if he did talk about the war is the theme in To Catch a Train.
The underlying theme in the story is that they made Uncle Burnett a hero for what, in his mind, was murder. In real life my uncle and another man charged up a hill, knocked out several gun emplacements and became heroes for their efforts. I can only imagine that this didn’t sit too well for my uncle or for many other such “heroes” of the war. In my story, of course, there is a description of similar scene carried out by Uncle Burnett and Casey Long.
(Just a side note here. When I wrote the story of To Catch a Train about ten years ago, I didn’t know that my uncle had actually charged a hill in such a manner. I also didn’t realize he was such a decorated soldier. I found that out much after the fact.)
The final theme, of course, is that Uncle Burnett couldn’t handle what he had done as a hero and killed himself by driving in front of a train. Later on, the little boy experiences the same horrors in Vietnam and meets with the same fate. Two soldiers in two wars decades apart saw their share and more of battle and found themselves unable to deal with it. The soldiers of the two wars were categorized differently by the media of the time largely because the wars themselves were categorically different. World War II had clear enemies and very clear objectives. Empires rose up with the purpose of conquering and creating chaos on a mass scale. The world banded together to stop them. The objectives in Vietnam were not so clear then or now. Whether it was ever worth fighting is a hotly debated subject and not one I am willing to get into now. The main point I try to make is that whether a man is seen as a villain or hero for his war efforts is secondary. The act of war itself is horrific and takes a toll on those who wage it.
The death by train is real life as well. In 1948, the uncle I never met drove in front of a train and died. No one in the family has ever suggested the death as anything other than an accident. I am not suggesting it, either. I have just always wondered what was going through my uncle’s mind when he crossed those tracks and died. Was his mind really in Ohio? Or was it still charging up a hill with a bazooka in hand becoming a hero?