On Living with the Loss of a Son in Wartime. Written and first published on Memorial Day, 2003
My name, “Gerard Van der Leun,” is an unusual one. So unusual, I’ve never met anyone else with the same name. I know about one other man with my name, but we’ve never met. I’ve seen his name in an unusual place. This is the story of how that happened.
It was an August Sunday in New York City in 1975. I’d decided to bicycle from my apartment on East 86th and York to Battery Park at the southern tip of the island. I’d nothing else to do and, since I hadn’t been to the park since moving to the city in 1974, it seemed like a destination that would be interesting. Just how interesting, I had no way of knowing when I left.
August Sundays in New York can be the best times for the city. The psychotherapists are all on vacation — as are their clients and most of the other professional classes. The city seems almost deserted, the traffic light and, as you move down into Wall Street and the surrounding areas, it becomes virtually non-existent. On a bicycle you own the streets that form the bottom of the narrow canyons of buildings where, even at mid-day, it is still cool with shade. Then you emerge from the streets into the bright open space at Battery Park.
Tourists are lining up for Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. A few people are coming and going from the Staten Island Ferry terminal. There are some scattered clots of people on the lawns of Battery Park. Everything is lazy and unhurried.
I’d coasted most of the way down to the Battery that day since, even though it appears to be flat, there is a very slight north to south slope in Manhattan. I arrived only a bit hungry and thirsty and got one of the dubious Sabaretts hot dogs and a chilled coke from the only vendor working the park.
We were in the midst of what now can be seen as “The Long Peace.”
The twin towers loomed over everything, thought of, if they were thought of at all, as an irritation in that they blocked off so much of the sky. It was 1975 and, Vietnam not withstanding, America was just about at the midway point between two world wars. Of course, we didn’t know that at the time. The only war we knew of was the Second World War and the background humm of the Cold War. It was a summer Sunday and we were in the midst of what now can be seen as “The Long Peace.”
In front of the lawns at Battery Park was a monument that caught my attention. It was formed of an immense stone eagle and two parallel rows of granite monoliths about 20 feet wide, 20 feet tall and 3 feet thick. From a distance you could see that they had words carved into them from top to bottom. There was also a lot of shade between them so I took my hot dog and my coke and wheeled my bike over, sitting down at random among the monoliths.
I remember that the stone was cool against my back as I sat there looking at the stone across from me on that warm afternoon. As I looked up it dawned on me that the words cut into the stones were all names. Just names. The names of soldiers, sailors and airmen who had met their death in the north Atlantic in WWII. I was to learn later that there were 4,601 names. All lost in the frigid waters, all without any marker for their graves — except those in the hearts of those they left behind, and their names carved into these stones that rose up around me.
I read across several rows, moving right to left, then down a row, and then right to left. I got to the end of the sixth row and went back to the beginning of the seventh row.
At the beginning of the seventh row, I read the name: “Gerard Van der Leun.” My name. Cut into the stone amongst a tally of the dead.
If you have an unusual name, there’s nothing that prepares you for seeing it in a list of the dead on a summer Sunday afternoon in Battery Park in 1975. I don’t really remember the feeling except to know that, for many long moments, I became chilled.
When that passed, I knew why my name was in the stone. I’d always known why, but I’d never known about the stone or the names cut into it.
“Gerard Van der Leun” was, of course, not me. He was someone else entirely. Someone who had been born, lived, and died before I was even conceived.
Gerard Van der Leun was my father’s middle brother. He was what my family had given to stop Fascism, Totalitarianism and Genocide in the Second World War. He was one of their three sons. He was dead before he was 22 years old. His body never recovered, the exact time and place of his death over the Atlantic, unknown.
I was always called “Jerry.” “Jerry” is not a diminutive of “Gerard.”
As the first child born after his death, I was given his name, Gerard. But as a child I was never called by that name. I was always called “Jerry.” “Jerry” is not a diminutive of “Gerard.” There are none for that name. But “Jerry” I would be because the mere mention of the name “Gerard” was enough to send my grandmother into a dark state of mind that would last for weeks. This was true, as far as I know, for all the days of her life and she lived well into her 80s.
My grandfather could barely speak of Gerard and, being Dutch, his sullen reticence let all of us know very early that it was wrong to ask.
My father, who was refused service in the Second World War due to a bout of rheumatic fever as a child that left him with the heart murmur that would kill him shortly after turning 50, was ashamed he didn’t fight and wouldn’t speak of his brother, Gerard, except to say, “He was a great, brave kid.”
My uncle, the baby of the family, spent a year or two of his youth freezing on the Inchon peninsula in Korea and seeing the worst of that war first hand. He was my only living relative who’d been in a war. He would never speak of his war at all, but it must have been very bad indeed.
… a helmet shot full of holes; a boot with most of a leg still in it…
I know this because, when I was a teenager, I was out in his garage one day and, opening a drawer, I found an old packet of photographs, grimy with dust at the back under a bunch of rusted tools. The black and white photos with rough perforated edges showed some very disturbing things: a helmet shot full of holes; a boot with most of a leg still in it, some crumpled heaps of clothing on patches of dirty snow that proved to be, on closer inspection, dead Korean soldiers; a pile of bodies on a white snowbank with black patches of blood seeping into it. The full horror show.
My uncle had taken them and couldn’t part with them. At the same time he couldn’t look at them. So he shoved them into a drawer with other unused junk from his past and left it at that. He never spoke of Korea except to say it was “rough,” and, now that he has quit speaking of anything, he never will. His only comment to me about his brother Gerard echoed that of my father, “He was a great kid. You can be proud to have his name. Just don’t use it around Grandma.”
And I didn’t. No one in my family ever did. All through the years that I was growing up at home, I was “Jerry.”
In time, I left home for the University and, in the manner of young men in the 1960s and since, I came upon a lot of new and, to my young mind, excellent ideas. A minor one of these was that it was time to stop being a ‘Jerry’ — a name I associated for some reason with young men with red hair, freckles and a gawky resemblance to Howdy Doody. I decided that I would reject my family’s preferences and call myself by my given name, ‘Gerard.’ In fact, in the callous manner of heedless boys on the verge of adulthood, I would insist upon it. I duly informed my parents and would correct them when they lapsed back to ‘Jerry.’
This attitude served me well enough and soon it seemed I had trained my bothers and my parents in my new name. Of course, I’d taken this name not because of who my uncle had been or because of the cause for which he gave his life, but for the selfish reason that it simply sounded more “dignified” to my ears.
I was a student at the University of California at Berkeley and it was 1965 and we had no truck with the US military that was “brutally repressing” the people of Vietnam. We were stupid and young and nothing that has happened at Berkeley since then has changed the youth and stupidity of its students. If anything, my era at the University just made it somehow possible for Berkeley students to think that their attitudes were as noble and as pure in their minds as they were stupid and selfish in reality. I was no longer a “Jerry” but a “Gerard” and I was going to make the world safe from America.
“Would you like some more creamed onions, Jerry?”
My name change plan went well as long as I confined it to my immediate family and my friends at the University. It went so well that it made me even stupid enough to try to extend it to my grandparents during a Thanksgiving at their home.
At some point during the meal, my grandmother said something like, “Would you like some more creamed onions, Jerry?”
And because I was a very selfish and stupid young man, I looked at her and said, “Grandma, everyone here knows that I’m not Jerry any longer. I’m Gerard and you’ve just got to get used to calling me that.”
Immediately, the silence came into the room. It rose out of the center of the table and expanded until it reached the walls and then just dropped down over the room like a large, dark shroud.
Nobody moved. Very slowly every set of eyes of my family came around and looked at me. Not angry, but just looking. At me. The silence went on. Then my grandmother, whose eyes were wet, rose from the table and said, “No. I can’t do that. I just can’t.” She left the table and walked down the hallway to her bedroom and closed the door behind her.
The silence compounded itself until my grandfather rose from his chair and walked to the middle of the hallway. He took a framed photograph off the wall where hung next to a framed gold star. It had been in that place so long that I’d stopped seeing it.
“Folks, Here’s my new office! Love, Gerard.”
My grandfather walked back to the table and very gently handed me the photograph. It showed a smooth-faced handsome young flyer with an open smile. He was dressed in fleece-lined leather flying jacket and leaning casually against the fuselage of a bomber. You could see the clear plastic in the nose of the plane just above his head to his right. On the picture, was the inscription: “Folks, Here’s my new office! Love, Gerard.”
My grandfather stood behind me as I looked at the picture. “You are not Gerard. You just have his name, but you are not him. That is my son. He is Gerard. If you don’t mind, we will continue to call you Jerry in this house. If you do mind, you do not have to come here any more.”
Then he took the picture away and put it back in its place on the wall. He knocked on the bedroom door, went in, and in a few minutes he and my grandmother came back to the table. Nobody else had said a word. We’d just sat there. I was wishing to be just about anyplace else in the world than where I was.
They sat down and my grandmother said, “So, Jerry, would you like some more creamed onions?”
I nodded, they were passed and the meal went on. My parents never said a word. Not then and not after. And, to their credit, they continued to call me Gerard. But not at my grandparents’ house.
A decade passed.
In 1975, I leaned against a monument in Battery Park in New York and read a name cut into stone among a list of the dead. That long ago Thanksgiving scene came back to me in all its dreadful detail. I tried to understand what that name in the stone had meant to my family when it became the only thing that remained of their middle son; a man who’d been swallowed up in the Atlantic during a war that finished before I drew breath.
I tried to understand what such a sacrifice meant to my grandparents and parents, but I could not. I was a child of the long peace who had avoided his war and gone on to make a life that, in many ways, was spent taking-down the things that my namesake had given his life to preserve. I was thirty then and not yet a parent. That would come a few years later and, with the birth of my daughter, I would at last begin, but only begin, to understand.
Today it makes me feel cheap and contemptible to think of the things I did in my youth to point out all the ways in which this country fails to achieve some fantasied perfection. I was a small part of promulgating a great wrong and a large lie for a long time, and I’m sure there’s no making up for that. My chance to be worthy of the man in the photograph, the name on the wall, has long since passed and all I can do is to try, in some way, to make what small amends I can.
Remembering these long ago moments now as we linger on the cusp of the Long War, I still cannot claim to understand the deep sense of duty and the strong feeling of honor that drove men like the uncle I’ve never known to sacrifice themselves. Lately though, as we move deeper into the Fourth World War, I think that, at last, I can somehow dimly see the outlines of what it was that moved them to give “the last full measure of devotion.” And that, for now, will have to do.
Since finding his name on the stone in 1975, I’ve been back to that place a number of times. I once took my daughter there.
After September 11th, I made a point of going to the monument as soon as the way was cleared, sometime in 2002. It was for the last time.
But if you go the monument today, you can still see the name in the stone. It’s not my name, but the name of a man much better than most of us. It’s on the far left column on the third stone in on the right side of the monument looking towards the sea. The name is usually in shadow and almost impossible to photograph.
Like most of the other names carved into the stone it’s up there very high. You can see it, but you can’t touch it. I don’t care who you are, you’re not that tall.
Written and first published on Memorial Day, 2003