“”Not many Americans know/recall that time, much less have been there,” my brother texted me. “Blend the historic with your experience.”
It is January 7, 2022, bitter-cold and windy outside, and a pandemic has been raging for the past two years.
A few days ago my brother, DJ, had mentioned listening to Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut, who was a POW in Dresden, Germany at the time of the bombing and survived. Intrigued, I listened to it myself. I shared with DJ I am physically reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, who survived Auschwitz and developed logotherapy during his horrific time in the camps.
This morning I texted my brother to tell him I had finished Slaughterhouse 5 and we discussed how it impacted us and the brilliance of the writing style. During our conversation other war stories we had read came up such as Devil At My Heels by Louis Zamperini, a WW2 POW who came to speak at my university during my attendance; The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, a Vietnam veteran; and Generation Kill by Evan Wright about the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
My brother’s viewpoint of these books is vastly different from mine, having experienced the atrocities of war himself as a Marine Lance Corporal Tow Gunner during the exact time Wright captured.
Eventually, vivid memories surfaced of the Killing Fields in Phenom Penh, Cambodia and an elementary school that was converted to a place of torture named S-21 for Security Prison 21. I had walked through S-21 (or rather the Toul Sleng Genocide Musuem it had been converted into) and seen the Killing Fields in 2008, yet the books I’ve read and continue to read center around WW2.
This comes from a small connection I feel in my heritage. My great-grandmother was a Jewish Russian, though she and her German husband came to America before they could be captured. We have no records of her life and I can’t help but wonder if, in the story I’m reading, anyone described there is a distant relative.
I am also drawn to these stories because I want to acknowledge them, as though their spirit sat quietly in a corner of my room as I read, grateful to have their life seen by someone. And as I take the burden of their anguish onto my shoulders and let their resilience inspire me, the shade feels just a little more peace than before.
As my brother urged me to write about my experience in Cambodia, I began to wonder if there were survivor stories and historical books easily acquired. Certainly not as many as WW2. And then I remembered I had a book about a survivor that I had bought in Phnom Penh. I had forgotten about the book after placing it on my bookshelf. I suppose that makes me part of the problem.
I admitted to my brother that I had no former knowledge of Pol Pot and a place now known as The Killing Fields before I took a train into Cambodia. Or if it was ever mentioned in my history classes, it was but a blip compared to the attention spent on much bigger things, and therefore, easily forgettable. I wonder how many people could easily recall any information about the Khmer Rouge.
Perhaps I will do this justice, or perhaps my words will be as impotent as Vonnegut’s bird’s responding cry to the destruction of Dresden. My words may not be as powerful because I cannot give accurate, first-hand accounts, but my brother reminded me I do have the unique perspective of having traveled there to physically walk through the place of torture. I have felt the presence of such a place, and will never forget it.
I have already checked out three library books to bring historical accuracy to this book. To layer in historical facts I did not know myself as I stared across a field with rags and bones protruding from the ground. A field surrounded by large metal fences so no one could disturb those broken bodies underneath.
As of me writing this, I don’t have a working title or idea of how I am going to shape this. I don’t even have historical facts to pull off the top of my head. I do have vivid images in my mind and the ghost of the goosebumps that traveled up my arms as I walked through S-21. Who am I to not try to honor the souls of the massacred?
I will start with the symbolic cry of Vonnegut’s bird and hope it translates into a story that will give peace to the spirits who will visit me as I write.