MEMORIES may fade, but the matrix of emotions on which they are inscribed does not. That's why, watching television, I cried. The scene was a military base where the soldiers and sailors of the gulf war were joyfully, tearfully reunited with their families.
My own emotional surge caught me completely by surprise. Up to that point my sincere appreciation of our men and women in the gulf was tempered by the fact of the relative ease and speed with which their mission was accomplished. Now here I was, embarrassed by the tears evoked in this televised homecoming.
The seeming casualness about the return of the heroes stemmed from my own World War II experience. These gulf veterans, I thought, don't know what sacrifice is. Most of them have been away only a few months. They have been through, at most, one battle. The ground portion of their war, after all, lasted 100 hours.
How would they like to be away from home two, three, four years? In terms of danger, I was relatively lucky, but I was in the South Pacific for 22 months. I did not see my family or my home for 2 1/2 years.
When I returned, my parents had visibly aged; my little brother had grown from 5 feet to 6 feet 2; my married sister had given birth to two children.
Others of World War II endured far more privation than I. The
soldiers on the plains of Western Europe who escaped wounds or death in one battle went back again and again to face another, month after month. Air units went on mission after mission until half their numbers were dead.
Death was ubiquitous. I had at least a dozen friends who never came home.
And yet, in 1991, I wept watching television.
It happened once before, in 1955, on the anniversary of the end of World War II.
On my South Pacific naval aviation base, though I never knew why, those of us who arrived first left last. Day after day my more recently arrived shipmates boarded planes or troop transports for that Paradise, that Nirvana, that Valhalla called home.
Early in December we received, at long last, the formal notification that a troop ship was coming to take the remainder of us back to the United States -- in time for Christmas. At sea, after 12 of the longest days since Creation, the Golden Gate Bridge loomed on the horizon.
All of us came on deck to soak up the moment. As we approached the bridge, excursion boatloads of people -- girls, mostly -- circled us and waved, and the vessels tooted their whistles.
As we passed directly under the bridge a cheer rose in a crescendo, and there were lumps in a thousand throats.
Ten years later, when I was home in the fullest sense, married with children, and the war far from my thoughts, I watched a television program commemorating the 10th anniversary of the war's end. It showed precisely what I had experienced -- ships crowded with troops passing under the Golden Gate Bridge.
Unexpectedly and unpredictably, I cried.
Now, just as unexpectedly and unpredictably, I have cried watching the homecoming of 1991.
Why? Obviously, when the memories have either receded or have been shoved aside by the subsequent blessings and woes of the average life, the profound emotions that undergirded those memories are latent. But recreate the scene, as in a historic television broadcast, or re-enact it, as with the new homecomings from the gulf, and the original feelings are aroused from their sleep. They swirl to the surface, evoking the excruciating joy of such a moment, now bittersweet with the realization in twilight years that this experience was in a time of extravagant youth -- long, long ago.
To the brave servicemen and women of the gulf war, I apologize for my temporary indifference to their joy. And in some far-off day, they, too, will experience this evocation of a heart-stirring moment. And they, like I, will weep.
Gwinn Owens is the retired editor of this page.