Many people might be surprised to hear that one of my best friends in college was a 70-year-old man. Many people might not be surprised at all… Buchs, you like antiques roadshow, Lawrence Welk and a Prairie Home Companion. You move like… really slow, and you fall asleep to M.A.S.H. every night. Okay, so for some it might seem totally natural. For me, meeting Major Shovar was still one of the most unexpected friendships of my life.
I met the Major my second semester of sophomore year in a Modern Western Civilization course. At the time I was technically a psych major, but only by name, due to the fact that I failed Psych 101 the previous semester due to not actually giving a shit about psychology. Sometimes we learn the hard way. The Major and I sat in front of the class next to each other for the next four semesters. He sat up front because of poor eye sight. I sat up front to stay awake. I’m sure we both sat up front because the idea of all the backpacks, feet and desk legs we could trip over on our way to the back of the classroom was terrifying to both of us.
The Major, even at seventy was an imposing tall man; still over six feet with a white beard and a balding head. He walked with a cane and had and oxygen tank with tubes in his nose at all times. I first wondered what he was even doing there? Is he paying for this? Just wants to finish his BA before he dies, huh? I can dig it. Most people didn’t take the time to say hello and quite frankly there wasn’t a good time. I think most people, including myself looked the Major as a sort of adorable Grandpa type.
Whatever perceived charm the Major held at the beginning of each course would soon fade. It was clear right away that the Major also sat at the front of the class in order to interject into the lecture as much as possible. This would often annoy students just trying to get through their notes and the lecture. This would also frustrate the Professor, who despite going to school for 15 years on European history had to field constant questions from the man who actually lived the history. The Major often came across as a man who would rather be teaching the class than sitting in it. This did not bode well for his popularity. In class full of undergrads with hangovers, and a chain-smoking professor he became a nuisance at times. On top of it all, the professor had a teaching style that came across more as a Broadway story-telling performance that was not to be interrupted. The Major did not notice or seem to care.
I learned a few things about the Major during our first year in academia together. First of all, I learned to call him Major, because he asked us to. Second, I learned that he was not a student. He was auditing the class. This is something he did often. He took every class he could to learn and to give feedback. History courses were his specialty because he was in fact, the history himself. I also learned that he had several degrees. He had a degree in nursing and a Masters in psychology.
I learned that he grew up in Austria as an Army brat during the aftermath of WWI. He also served as a triage nurse during Vietnam, although I wouldn’t quite know what that meant for a couple years. The Major went into Vietnam as a nurse and received his Psychology and counseling degree to work with Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I learned all these tidbits in the small moments before and after class, but over the next couple years it would paint a completely different picture of who The Major really was. He wasn’t a sweet grandpa or an annoying teachers pet. He was a dude who had seen some shit. I became absolutely fascinated by The Major and became less and less concerned with whether or not he was annoying and more interested in his experiences.
I was balancing a full class load and student teaching hours during my last semester in college. I had enrolled in a class titled “Hitler’s Germany’ with the Major and I also had another history class focused on the Vietnam War, all while collecting 500 hours of classroom time with sixth graders at a nearby middle school. Needless to say, it left less time to chitchat with the Major on a day-to-day basis. I was teaching in a sixth grade classroom the Friday before Memorial Day when the school brought in two Veterans to speak to the kids about their experiences serving in the military.
One story particularly struck me from that afternoon. A WWII veteran told the incredible story of being a prisoner of war. He had marched from one prison camp to another during the winter and had lost some of his toes to frost bite. On Christmas Eve 1944, he was imprisoned in a German prisoner of war camp when the American soldiers started singing silent night in English, and the guards holding them captive, started singing along in German. Close to the end of the song a bomb was dropped on the prison during and air raid killing many of the prisoners and guards. This man had obviously, managed to survive.
I sat their dumbfounded and moved by his story. Speechless. In that moment, I realized how important it is to listen to Veterans, not only for them, for all the soldiers who never made it out to tell their own stories. My stupor was eventually interrupted by a sixth grade boy who could not mentally get passed the frost-bite portion of the story. Instead of grasping the terror and humanity of the Christmas story, he decided to ask just how many toes had the man lost to winter. If there is one thing that teaching showed me, it is that knowledge is completely wasted on the young.
It was then that I realized I needed to get the Majors story. I was writing a paper on the Vietnam War at the time, and I hoped he would agree to an interview. He seemed shocked and nervous when I first asked him for the interview. For propriety reasons he wanted to bring his wife at first, but we finally settled on an empty room inside the headquarters of the history department building. The interview started awkwardly. My paper was about the changing attitudes towards the Vietnam War and how the evolving stance of the entire country was mirrored in the leadership of Robert F. Kennedy. The Major did not have much to say on this front. He was a soldier; politics were quite removed from his reality of the time.
The Major had been drafted into Vietnam as a triage nurse. During this interview I would learn how difficult job must have been. As a triage nurse, the Major would be on the front lines of combat. It would be his job, in the field, to decide who could have a chance to survive and conversely, who would not. With quick assessment the Major would essentially play the God and get to decide the fate of many soldiers and civilians. There in this small corner room, 45 years later, it was clear that this responsibility still tortured him. The Major began to choke up when he talked about the day he held a Vietnamese baby who was too injured to receive care, so instead, he held it in his arms until the baby was gone. As he told this story the Major held out his arms as if the baby was still lying in them. It was heartbreaking. The Major began to weep when he talked about coming home and being greeted in the airport as a “baby-killer” by protestors.
I didn’t write anything during this interview. There are no academic notes that could ever capture the experience appropriately. I did not record the interview either. Just listened. That’s all you can do, and it seemed the only respectful thing I could do to honor his service. I also did not use his interview in my paper, not because I did not want to. This amazing story of fallen soldiers and the soldiers left to carry on had no place in my silly paper, and academics rarely leaves space for emotional journeys during research essays.
I had one final class with the Major during my last summer in college. He did not attend the first week of class and the professor (who we always took class with) let me know that he was struggling with his health and would be attending as soon as he could. He eventually showed, moving slower, coughing more. I did not ask questions about his health, we were not those kinds of friends. Later that summer he informed me, nonchalantly, that he was on oxygen because he had cancer and over the first part of the summer he was declared terminally ill. I did not comment much. Just felt grateful in that moment that I had taken the time to hear his story and even more grateful that he had shared it.
I would not see the Major again after that class finished that summer. He emailed me often. Mostly forwards with photographs of baby animals and clean humor, not unlike my own grandparents. Then in 2012, the emails stopped and I assume he is gone. I am so grateful he told his story, that he told the story of fallen soldiers, that he kept learning and that he kept spreading his memory of his experience. Every Memorial Day I think of Major Shovar, not because of his service, but because of the way he taught me to remember others. He did not die in battle like those we honor on Memorial Day. However, I think he felt a greater responsibility to keep living, because he did make it home. In memory of all the soldiers who have fought and died or fought and kept going, I honor you by listening. Thank you for your service and thank you for sharing the experiences of the fallen.