Monday, March 2, 2015

Unearthing the Past: Author Ruth Crocker to Keynote NEK Veterans Summit

Lon Oakley, platoon leader, finding David Crocker's name on the wall
We all have buried secrets. But few among us go to the trouble of having them interred. Fewer still, decades later, find the courage to dig them up.
     In Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, acclaimed author Ruth Crocker reveals the secrets she kept after her husband’s death in Vietnam, her work to honor his memory, and her courageous journey toward healing herself and other survivors.
     Crocker -- a playwright, essayist, and frequent speaker -- will deliver the keynote address at the third annual NEK Veterans Summit at Lyndon State College on March 14th.  She will also hold a workshop, “Tell Your Story,” on memoir and story-writing for writers of all levels.
     Only 23 years old at his death, Crocker took her husband’s ashes to the Eiger, to scatter them where he himself had wanted climb, and filled his casket with keepsakes of their too few years together. And while the informing image of the memoir – retrieving that secret bounty – is most dramatic, it stands at best as metaphor for the secrets of the heart the author unfolds in beautiful, memorable prose. Kirkus Reviews praises the book’s “thoughtfulness and grace,” and calls Those Who Remain, “a moving exploration of widowhood.” Others have said it should be “required reading” for those who work with Veterans.

Ruth and David Crocker, June 1966
 Crocker, who lives in Mystic, Ct, and earned an MFA from Bennington College, has, she says, “many irons in the fire right now,” including a collection of essays and a collaboration with photographer Steven Horan on a book about people who live in and around Yellowstone National Park. She also holds workshops for emerging writers and helps them on the road to publication.
     As vital and rewarding as the inner journey of writing and remembrance has been for her, Crocker emphasizes the power of community and reunion, of spending time and sharing stories with those who have walked the same difficult ground. 
     This years’ NEK Veterans summit will provide an opportunity for veterans, their families, and those who support them to do just that. The day-long event will feature Crocker’s keynote, breakout sessions and workshops, and information booths hosted by more than 50 veteran services organizations. Visit the Lyndon State College website to preregister.

The author today.

Your son urged you to write Those Who Remain.  How did the book come into being?

Noah had always known my story because he grew up knowing Dave’s parents like grandparents. When he was in high school, he heard or read that Steven Spielberg was collecting the stories of Holocaust survivors, and he said, “Mom, you have to tell your story while you still can.”

I was involved with theater at the time and was actually producing a children’s theater program that Noah was part of. I decided to write a play – a fictionalized version of my experience. The experience of seeing and hearing the play in a performance was scary – I was still a little too sensitized about my life and had a great difficulty talking about it. Simultaneously, my mother became ill and I had to take over the family business, a 100-bed skilled nursing home. I had little time to write over the next few years as I ran the business and took care of my mother, but I worked on essays/stories and sometime during that time I wrote about the day I was notified of Dave’s death.

Little by little, I began to accumulate stories and bits of writing – I wrote scenes from snippets of notes that I had kept over the years. (I’ve always been a sporadic journal writer). Noah kept nudging me and praising my writing (I think he was the only person I shared my writing with) but, by 2000, he was also involved with his career and struggling to find acting jobs.

Ruth with her son, Noah Bean.

I don’t think I imagined a book at that point. I just began to get an intense desire to say what happened. It’s interesting that Noah’s career really took off in television between 2006- 2007 when he got his first big role on “Damages.” At the same time, I sold the nursing home (2006) and finally had time to do more writing – and I had my first reunion experience. I remember being in the hotel in Omaha and calling Noah in New York to describe how amazing it was to meet the guys and hear stories about Dave for the first time. My mother died on January 1, 2008 after ten years of dementia and I went to my second reunion with members of Dave’s unit which was also my first trip to The Wall on May 3, 2008. (by chance, my mother’s birthday). I kept notes on all of these events and little ironies.

So, writing stories/essays was my first step and it rose out my increasing need to tell stories. Getting stories down felt like I was unpacking a suitcase packed long ago. The concept of a book didn’t arrive until I went to Bennington College to study creative writing in 2009 and ultimately, in 2011, created a thesis that was a compilation of essays. This helped me to believe that I could create a larger narrative out of my stories.

I hadn’t thought of digging up the casket until then, either. The Big Dig idea emerged when I described the burying the letters to one of my mentors at Bennington and his reaction was, “You’ve got to dig up those letters.” My reaction was, “No, I don’t.” But the seed was planted that maybe I could. Digging up the letters ultimately convinced me that I had a story that could be a book.
"Must reading" for those who work with Veterans and their families.

And so, you did dig up the casket.

There were two obstacles to the idea of digging up the casket. The first was my own pledge to myself that I would never do it. It was meant for eternity. The second was how I imagined the logistics of the digging operation to be. Whenever I thought about the process, it seemed like it would be loud and dramatic with backhoes and pickaxes and piles of dirt. It seemed too disturbing to even contemplate. What changed my mind about that was my conversation with the funeral director and his relaying to me that he would do the paperwork and make all the arrangements. (one additional note about the funeral home and my "crew" who did the digging up, they have been very happy with the book and how I described them - even though I was a little worried what they might think about my frankness about the experience). I tried not to imagine what I'd find in the casket, and even though I discovered the unimaginable, I'm still glad that I did it. The act of digging up the casket has made me feel even more courageous and settled about other aspects of my life.

The subtitle is Remembrance and Reunion After War, and both subjects are key in your memoir. You've spoken about the power and importance of remembering the past. Why is this so vital for veterans and their families?

I think “remembering” and “remembrance” are different. Perhaps one leads to the other. Remembering is more of a rumination of the past but the act of remembrance suggests a coming together and a collective act – a kind of combining or recombining of memories that helps to situate people in their own narrative and in historical time. The act of remembrance helps to turn a situation into a story. It’s a focusing of feelings that acknowledges what it is to survive something like war.

I think – in a way – to get to a state of remembrance we have to have accepted that things happened and we remember them and we can still survive. When we have some difficult things to remember, like some of the horrendous things that people see on the battlefield, it’s hard to share them, as if bringing them forth is like opening Pandora’s box (sorry for the clique) but, when they can be shared, it’s actually a gift for each one.

I spoke with one veteran who said, when he first started to speak about his war experience he couldn’t make himself formulate enough of a story to speak about the bad stuff. Things came out in sound bites and nonsensical bits.  He started with a funny story about wanting to make a hot meal for his buddies in Vietnam and creating a giant soup out of a case of C-rations. “No one would eat it. They all said it was more horrible than the war,” he said.

I think that to get to the stage of “remembrance” is very grounding for people. It is the organization of memory that makes our separate memories tolerable.

Meeting President Obama, Memorial Day, 2014

While you were in the early stages of the book, your brother-in-law discovered on-line tributes to you husband from those who remembered his courage and leadership in Vietnam, which lead to an invitation to a reunion of the 22th Infantry Regiment Society.  Tell us about that experience.

After Tom initiated contact with the guys who had written the tributes, they each wrote to me and repeated their glowing memories of Dave. At first I was terrified at the prospect of meeting them in person. It seemed too real, but at the same time, because I had been writing and thinking about Dave’s death and what our life had been – and I realized that I had only scraps of memories about some things – I was curious to meet them.

My biggest fear was to be immersed in a “military” environment again. I had scrupulously avoided contact with the military for years. But, when we arrived and walked through the door of the hotel in Omaha – they were there with open arms, literally. Suddenly, I felt as if I had known them all along. I felt recognized in a way that I’ve never quite felt before, as if they knew who I was, who Dave was, and what I had suffered – but it was all presented with a buoyant kindness and sensitivity.

Why is it so difficult for some to attend reunions or gatherings with other veterans or their families?

I think it’s the fear of bringing back old memories that are hard to hold. Everyone I’ve met at reunions says that they felt they just couldn’t go back – particularly Vietnam veterans – They had a terrible experience at a very young age and then returned home to a lot of hostility and resentment. They had seen things in the war that they had tried to forget, and to go to a reunion meant they might have to remember and even talk about it.

However, everyone says the same thing about the reunion experience – it’s the best thing they’ve ever done. It’s a warm bath of kindness and appreciation. And best of all, people know what you’ve been through and what you want to say and not say – before you say it.
The author in Switzerland, 1969.

You're a Gold Star Wife. Are you active in the organization?

I wasn’t active for many years. They reached out to me, but I didn’t want to think or talk about that aspect of my life for a long time. Finally, a few years ago I went to a meeting in my area, mostly out of curiosity, and discovered some interesting women and heard their stories, and for the first time, I felt a bond with them. I volunteered to do something (I can’t remember what) and the next moment I was elected to the national board. I’ve been the Chapter/Region Liaison to the national board for about three years and I’ve come to know a hugely diverse group of women from all parts of the country who have only one thing in common – and it’s fundamentally not a good thing. 

By the way, this year is the 70th anniversary of Gold Star Wives. It was created in 1945 by two WWII widows who had the tenacity to go to Eleanor Roosevelt and describe the plight of widows and their children trying to survive without benefits or services.  The organization is still battling to preserve and improve what we have today. I was representing the GSW in Washington, DC when my photo was taken with the President.

You've said, "War leaves us transformed, but never unscathed."   What do you hope readers take with them?

I think perhaps we are so used to the idea of war in our society that we don’t think about the fact that, when we become involved in some way, either as a soldier or family member, we are entering an unpredictable situation to which we have to respond. The transformation is the result of trying to comprehend what we see and hear, often when we are young and innocent. Sometimes the transformations might be finding ourselves suddenly in life or death situations, or thrust into leadership positions that might have seemed incomprehensible before.

When I hear veterans talk about their experiences there are often positive things, like “I didn’t know I had it in me to survive that!” or stories of feeling extraordinary brotherhood and making the most intense bonds of their lifetime. When Dave went to war I found out a lot about myself and my ability to wait and try to understand what Dave’s job was, and it made me understand why my family was so intensely against it. I didn’t have to think about that until I was actually “in it” myself. Their opinions and ideas had just been noise in the background.

The question of being unscathed is that we pay a price for the quick intense education that war provides. We can be haunted by scenes in our memory, we can be left with questions like, “what if…”, and we have come to know the reality of war – that’s it’s about killing or being killed and for whatever reason, we don’t seem to be able to stop war from happening. We learn that “war is hell” is true.

This interview appears in the March 2015 issue of the award-winning The North Star Monthly. Check out their site.