Make A Separate Peace

Old soldiers don't die – they just redeploy – Anonymous Curmudgeon

On February 13, 1983 an angry old soldier drove down a remote road in North Dakota, north of the town of Medina. He and two companions came to a roadblock. A gunfight ensued. Two law enforcement officers died and the old soldier fled. His two companions, one of whom is his son, were arrested. The old soldier died in another shootout in Arkansas, killed by a county sheriff who also died. His companions are still in prison. His name was Gordon Kahl.

I knew another old soldier, but he was not an angry man. I once found him on another remote road and that encounter is my favorite memory of him. This is his story.

On November 5th, 1984 I was driving on a gravel road in North Dakota and saw a car pulled over to the side of the road. I stopped behind it and walked to the driver's side of the car to offer aid. I was surprised and delighted to see my favorite uncle, my father's brother Arvid. I had just arrived from Alaska and had not seen him in years. He was reading a newspaper and my aunt was knitting. They seemed perfectly relaxed.

I asked if anything was wrong and if they needed help. My uncle replied "no" to both. He went on to say that the car had a peculiar habit of quitting once in a while but it could be restarted in a few minutes. He reasoned, that after several such incidents, he now had sufficient evidence to "puzzle through" and correct the problem in his own garage. At that time he was 77 years old and as able-bodied as a young man. He was a farmer and a trapper. He also was a skilled carpenter, mechanic and marksman.

My uncle and my father were two of the most peaceable people I have ever known. They were quiet steady men who had "made do" and "puzzled through" all of their lives. There is a question that haunts me to this day. My uncle and Gordon Kahl were both North Dakota farm boys who engaged in combat in World War II. Each was an expert gunner and highly decorated. My uncle had three purple hearts among his medals. However, they were totally dissimilar men who solved problems very differently. Why?

If there is an answer to my question, perhaps that will help research into the treatment of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

My uncle was the eldest of three brothers and was born in a sod house in 1907. In 1917 his parents built a two-story, two-room frame house with an arctic entry and a root cellar. This was homestead life on the prairies. The brothers slept upstairs. Sometimes in the winter, ice covered the windows in the morning. In the summer they often slept outside on the ground, preferring mosquitos to the sweltering heat of the second story. Arvid later slept in many a barn, resting on hay.

At that time and place, education was in a one-classroom township schoolhouse. The school was a mile walk from the farm along a dirt road. As with most rural youth, schooling ended for him at the eighth grade. After that, he spent almost 20 years as an itinerant farm hand. He started out working for his father but was not paid. By 1921 a recession was beginning in Rural America. It would last until it became part of a nation-wide depression in 1930 touched off by the Stock Market Crash of late 1929.

During the 1920s more than 600,000 farmers went bankrupt. Many economists believe that the rural recession of the 1920s contributed to the stock market crash of 1929. In 1938, a federal minimum wage was established at 25 cents an hour. In the 1920s and 30s, a dollar a day would be typical for a farm worker. Food was plentiful on farms and came with the wages. Lodging was often provided by the employer, but could have been in a stack of hay inside or outside of a barn or perhaps a cot next to the coal in a coal shed. Alternatively boarding houses were available.

At that time social life was not technology-driven, so people entertained themselves. Since farms were where the food was, farmers and farm workers ate well. This was not true of urban areas during the Great Depression. A farmhand would be used to eating lots of meat: cottontail, jackrabbit, venison and game birds from wild land; beef, pork, mutton and poultry from farmyards; fish from streams and lakes. There always were potatoes and locally grown fresh or canned produce. Pancakes and eggs were ever present.

Regional foods included lutefisk, which a is gelatinous dish made from reconstituted dried fish. It is considered to be a delicacy by many and vile by others. There was always lefse, a savory soft flatbread made from potatoes, and kuchen – a delightful hybrid of cake and pie. Ice cream was a rarity because then few had electricity or refrigerators.

The Army was seen as employment opportunity with follow-up benefits. After trying for years to get into the Army, my uncle was inducted in 1941. At the time, he could have carried everything he owned in a car. The country was getting ready for war. Many inductees from urban areas were underweight and unfit because of malnutrition. Residents of Rural America were often in better shape. My uncle was a big, powerful man. He was well fed and well muscled from years working on farms. He was 34 years old.

Arvid did not talk about what he did to the enemy in combat, but he did talk about the third time he was wounded. Then he made a separate peace with the war. He told himself that if he survived, he would never let anything bother him again. As far as anyone knows, he never did let anything bother him again.

Accounts of Gordon Kahl indicate that he had conflicts with government and law enforcement going back to 1967. He excused such conflicts with an extreme right wing doctrine. Did this man who served his country against the greatest evil ever known – as did my uncle - have PTSD? I don't know. Neither do I know how my uncle lived the rest of his long life without any signs of PTSD.

My uncle was older than most when he entered the army. He was 34 and his maturity may have been a factor. His family history could be of interest as well. His father was a harsh and autocratic man. My grandmother was the opposite. My father and my uncle were their mother's sons.

I don't have an answer, but I do believe that it is as important to understand why some veterans do not have PTSD as it is to understand why some veterans do have that condition.

Arvid was very well-read and well-informed. On one occasion he noticed that I was reading a magazine article and asked me about it. I told him that the article was about the most decorated marine in history. He said "Do you know that some big-shots tried to make him dictator?"


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