Friday, January 26, 2007

The Things They Carried

One of the best books about the Vietnam Conflict is Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. While understandably soldiers in combat situations carry things that they need to help them through the vagaries of daily warfare, they also carried mementos from home. All manner of items--photographs, good luck pebbles, letters, comic books. On and on the list goes.

Recently, one of the national television news programs revisited this image--soldiers in far away countries carrying things from home--only this time the country is Iraq. The reporter asked each soldier whether or not he (and I think they were all men who were interviewed) carried anything special. Remarkably, but not surprisingly, almost everyone had some little object hidden away that was carried as . . .a reminder of home? a talisman against harm while battling in harm's way? an object of affection from a loved one? Who knows--just that they all carried something.

Of course, items are not only carried into to war, but away from war. Soon after World War II had ended, my maternal grandfather, who was a life-long farmer in rural Pennsylvania, went on what must have been the adventure of his life. He went with a ship load of cattle to Poland. Since so many farm animals had been killed in the destruction that swept Europe as a prime battleground for World War II, many countries were bereft of farm animals. When he came home, he had carried along some souvenirs--war souvenirs. He brought back Polish currency, and various pins with swastikas. I don't know if these items were jewelry or if they were decorations that would have been worn on uniforms. Somehow, I inherited them.

One of the most striking (and photographic) scenes that I encountered on my recent trip to Accra, Ghana, is all the people, especially women, carrying items on their heads. Now, I know from having grown up in Africa that girls start carrying items on their heads when they are just wee tiny.

So, the skill acquired over many years of practice is probably second nature to them when they are adults. BUT, the sheer size of the loads still takes my breath away. I do confess there are times when my arms are tired of holding some big box that I heave it up on my head and walk for a bit, holding on of course. Try that and see how many odd looks you get.

Finally, one more tale of carrying things. When our daughter studied in a semester abroad, in Glasgow Scotland, the University had a month long spring break. She and two college mates of hers decided to do some touring in eastern Europe. They flew to Vienna, and from there a bit at a time, they traveled by train, with Istanbul as their terminal destination. Their travel luggage, for the most part, were the large backpacks that they could carry on their backs or by hand.

When they got to Istanbul, our daughter saw the perfect gift to bring home for us--a lovely blue plate to hang on a wall. It has an Arabic inscription; there is a helpful translation taped to the back for those who do not read Arabic (which includes me). Translation: "The God knows everything; The God is everywhere."

The purchase of this plate is not the point of the story. Carrying it home is. When she got home, our daughter gave us some of the other gifts she had gotten, then came the coup de grace--the plate. In addition to the wrapping the merchant had done, our daughter had carefully wrapped it in her clothing, then packed it in her back pack, and carried it all the way home. First from Istanbul to London, then on to Glasgow, and then eventually from Glasgow back to the United States and central Pennsylvania. Her one college mate traveling along had also bought a similar plate for her parents. The plate broke while they were still in Istanbul, so she bought another. That plate made it part way in the journey home, but it too broke. Our daughter successfully carried hers thousands of miles, and gave it to us. It now graces our living room wall.

Thus it is written: "The God knows everything; The God is everywhere."


Mary said...

I learn so much from your writings, since I haven't been out of the US. I appreciate your insight and knowledge around the world. My daughter's boyfriend is a former Marine. His battery was the first to fire in Baghdad in 03. When I see him soon, I'll ask him what he kept close to him to his heart during those long months.

Your daughter's story is remarkable!

Ginnie said...

What an interesting subject for a blog entry...what we carry. It must be different for everyone but I was recently embarassed while on a trip and a person asked to see pictures of my children...and I had none with me! Now I carry them with me.

LauraHinNJ said...

*All seeing and all knowing...*

Really interesting post - love the photos of the ladies carrying things on their heads - quite a skill! I can just imagine the messes I would make if I tried it myself.