Museum Quality Greatest Generation

I’ve probably walked past this installation two-dozen times and for some reason, I never stopped for a closer look. Maybe its the creepy white people, maybe its just that my kids are usually in a hurry to get to children’s museum. But this weekend, I took my two sons to the Cincinnati Museum Center for a little ‘guy time’ and made a point to spend some time in the WWII section of the Cincinnati History Museum.

This small corner of a very impressive museum is chocked full of items meant to depict the slice-of-life, the every day existence of Southwest Ohio during the war years. There are living room scenes with dresser-sized Crosley radios, a reproduction street car and some very cool propaganda and recruitment material.

There’s also some war artifacts that made me pause:

But the display that captured my attention, the one that I ‘shushed’ the boys for and took my time with was the one pictured at the top of this post. It was of a young junior officer delivering the worst news a mother could ever receive – that her son had been critically wounded in combat, that there was no additional information available and that the War Department would be in touch.

I’ve been to dozens of museums and a lot of them have highlighted one aspect or another of the second World War. But I had never really seen anything like this. This wasn’t about everyone pitching in, rolling up their sleeves or shipping off to Basic Training. This was about the very real cost of war. It was human and humane, it was the other side of the story.

As a young Army lieutenant in the Vietnam era, my dad delivered messages like these. He was stationed at a Nike Hercules missile base just outside of Chicago. It was 1968, 1969. The war was raging at a fevered pitch and part of Dad’s duty was to deliver these kinds of messages all over the greater Chicago area. There was the woman in Cabrini Green who put a shotgun in his face and asked when she’d receive her money without fully opening the door. There was the family – two generations of women married to three or four men with the same rank and last name – out in the country. He had to go there twice because all he had was a rank and last name. There were others.

This display is about the mother, whose life was instantly and forever changed by that telegram. But I couldn’t help but feel for the young officer, whose change was less sudden, a slow-burn erosion from countless letters delivered. This scene is full of pain, more than one kind, and all permanent.

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