Pollick: Recognize veterans by listening to their stories

Thomas Pollick, Columnist

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Several days ago, my dad and I went out to lunch with our family friend, Mel, and his son, Tom. Mel served in World War II with my grandpa, both as riflemen in the same squad for about six months. Through their experiences together, the two of them became close friends.

I had met Mel before at family functions but had never really gotten a chance to talk to him about the war. My grandpa passed away in 2005, before I could fully appreciate or understand his service in World War II. There is still a lot I wish I could ask him. There are a lot of conversations I wish I could have with him with the maturity and understanding I have now.

Speaking with Mel this past week was the closest I’ve felt to my grandpa since his passing. He spoke with an openness and eagerness to share war stories, especially when he talked about my grandpa, his squad leader, who he referred to as “Duke” and for whom he had a great amount of respect.

The stories gripped me. Some were lighthearted accounts about the quirky personalities in the squad, but many others were about times when they were faced with death.

One of these stories was about when my grandpa was stuck, unconscious, under a heavy burning timber in the basement of a German farmhouse — and was saved when a fellow soldier, with a rush of adrenaline, picked it up off of him. The next day, when they revisited the farmhouse, he was unable to pick it up again, no matter how hard he tried. It was a story my dad had written about and gotten published in the Chicago Sun-Times. The article generated a very positive response, and my dad received countless emails from people who related to his article and shared stories of their own family members who served in the war.

My dad has always been deeply interested in his father’s experiences in the war. Though my grandpa rarely volunteered to talk about the war, he answered questions about his experiences when my dad asked him. Sometimes my dad videotaped these question-and-answer sessions so he could look back on them. He did research into the stories and had contact with a couple of the the soldiers my grandpa spoke fondly of. One of these soldiers was Mel.

At some point during my lunch with Mel, I realized that I was about the same age he and my grandpa were when they began combat. I was at the same point in my life as they were when they were faced with, on a regular basis, life or death situations. The stories Mel told suddenly began to hit me. I suddenly connected to them in a very real way that I never had before.

Although I’ve always been aware of my grandpa’s heroism, having tangible stories of his experiences in the war helps me grasp how remarkable he really was.

Speaking with Mel also made me realize the importance of what my dad has done over the years — asking questions and collecting stories. The stories he has uncovered are timeless and connect people all over the world in their lessons of courage and heroism. They are stories that increase my understanding of who my grandpa was, years after he died. They are stories that have connected Mel’s family with my family.

On this Veterans Day, I encourage everyone to thank veterans for their service but also to be willing to ask about and listen to the experiences of those willing to share. You never know what stories are waiting to be heard.

Thomas Pollick is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at thomaspollick3.2016@u.northwestern.edu. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.