Memoir

Why Do We Travel?

Why do we travel? I have considered that question many times over the course of my career to try to keep my travel writing relevant to my readers. Not unexpectedly, the answer has evolved as my eyes have opened ever wider to the world. But even I was a bit surprised at the way my travel revelations turned with the development of my memoir about my dad and his World War II service.

Erick had been a farmer before the war. Coming into adulthood during the Great Depression, travel for him was a rare occurrence. When a trip happened, it was taken in much the same way as I took trips with my mother and siblings when I was young: we would get in the car and drive to see relatives and stay with them. No trains, no planes. Even very few overnight stays in rented rooms, and those would be roadside motels we fell into, exhausted, en route.

As a young man, Erick traveled out of necessity a couple of times in that horrible Dust Bowl era. Once to his uncle’s farm in the next state, to work there for the summer when work was scarce at home and there were too many mouths to feed. Once to the neighboring state in the other direction, to join a work crew for heavy labor in the wilderness. No sightseeing, no glamour and certainly not a holiday.

My career began with a travel aspect. The statewide newspaper that I edited would host group tours to fund our publication. Working with in-country guides and savvy bus drivers, I led groups and then photographed and wrote about the excursions, aiming to spark registrations for the next outing. As a sidelight, hiking and backpacking allowed me to go deeper into the countryside and write about nature.

My next career move was into the business press, writing about insurance topics that would take me to natural or man-made disasters. Capturing those events for my readers was travel writing of a sort, although not intended to spur people to sign on for a tour to those locations.

And then a favorite avocation – bicycling – provided an opportunity to guide people into more pleasant adventures. Whether cycling into the countryside for a day or down the coast of America for a month, bicycle excursions struck me as the perfect way to experience the landscape and culture of a place. And it fed my lifelong urge to “show people around.” Two guidebooks and many freelance articles ensued.

When I stretched myself into this project of rediscovering my father, I knew travel would be necessary—and different. I didn’t want to just visit by car, and I thought that even a bicycle would create too little contact between me and his battlefields. I resolved to walk, my eyes and my breath and my feet all helping me experience where he had fought.

And that was where I realized that travel, for me, had changed. With every pace, I was trying to see the Italian world through my father’s eyes. I felt him as my shadow, his hand on my shoulder. At points, he would disappear maddeningly. Sometimes the harder I tried to get his view of things, the more the landscape would lose its color.

Even my encounters would change. I interviewed local elders along the way, mostly through interpreters, and learned from their remembrances of the war. The stories often were disturbing.

Bill on Italian battlefields trip
A composite image created by my sister, Karen Leisy, for a book draft I gave to siblings.

With boots on the ground, I was learning things my father would have never revealed or perhaps didn’t even perceive. The travel was causing my history-memoir project to evolve. It was also changing me in unexpected ways. I came to consider the entire generation of men who had fought alongside my father and then carried home their indelible “travel” memories of being in war. That forced situation has continued with the next generations, fighting in the wars that followed.

I realized that unless we were there, in that time, we cannot understand the experience of participants in war, soldiers or civilians. But by traveling there today we can learn, experience their land and culture, and hope it helps us comprehend how they became who they are. And, by extension, peer down the road at the evolving view of who we are.

Some travel/writing influences:

Twain’s European reports: The Innocents Abroad

Steinbeck’s wandering: Travels with Charley

Heat-Moon’s small-town discoveries: Blue Highways

Theroux’s immersive treks: On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey

Stewart’s exploratory walking: The Places in Between

Steves’ cheery jaunts: Europe Through the Back Door


A Significant Veteran’s Day

Note: These are some thoughts from Veteran’s Day a few years ago, after a research trip to Italy.

Today I feel the loss of my father more acutely than ever. I have been studying World War II, especially the Anzio campaign, reading first-hand accounts and historical recounting, and especially poring over the pictures. Most are grainy black-and-whites that don’t give a crisp image of the action, but rather reflect the extreme desperation it must have taken to send people to war. Engaging in war, for honorable people, must be borne out of desperation, because it results in inconceivable hardship, suffering, damage and death. Whole villages and towns are destroyed, their people scattered or shipped off or forced to live in caves or camps. Families are torn apart.

The soldiers and their families, too, if they are reunited, are traumatized in one way or another: the soldiers with their wounds, disabilities, haunting memories and grim outlook; the spouses with their own recollection of the hardships endured while their soldier was away, keeping home and family together, and now with the burden of living with, caring for and trying to love a person who is changed forever. Haunted. Less than whole. The children may have the innocence of their years stripped away, or at least buried under a mound of responsibility, vague feelings of dread and sadness. They may be robbed of the calm, steady future that a contented, well-adjusted family would provide.

Perhaps I’m talking about my own family, my own life. My family didn’t begin until after the war, when my dad had already been wounded, hospitalized and repaired as best they could. By age thirty-two he had been through the horrors of bombs and night raids and endless days in the freezing mud. He had seen other soldiers and platoon buddies torn apart by enemy fire, the life drained out of them. He had killed. And ordered others to kill.

My mother, too, before she met him, had seen the ravages of war from the homefront. She’d listened to radio reports and read the news, constantly worried over the fate of two brothers and countless other friends and family fighting in the war. She had endured rationing, seen the parade of wounded men coming back, knew families whose boys had not returned, and imagined the horrors of a world where our side would not prevail. The war started when she was eighteen, at the point where boys and dances and school and starting a family should have been occupying her mind, but instead it was no doubt filled with more sober thoughts. She went to work instead of college, with her pay going to help her mother pay the bills.

It is my father’s trek and his wartime experiences that has me most curious. I’m dwelling on what he must have seen and done and gone through—those things that changed him, brought him back to again be a farmer and look over the rolling hills of western North Dakota. They say men coming back from war can never find life too quiet, and looking at the land around the farm, he must have seen it in a different way. Was it overlaid with another landscape, one where ditches were filled with men in helmets and behind every tree was a camouflaged gun or tank or ammo truck? Did the old gravel roads look just as those did in Italy before artillery shook the ground and cratered the pathways into useless fields of rubble? When he looked into the distance, did he imagine flashes of light and smoke tearing apart the opposite hillside? What did he expect to see coming down the road?

The land on which he fought the Anzio campaign was flat and nearly treeless, rising to the Lepini Hills where the Nazis held the high ground. The plains had been marshes, drained by the government to create farmland. Onto the land sprung up farmhouses and tiny villages. In that way, the terrain was not unlike North Dakota. And into that rural landscape, the soldiers would swarm to engage the enemy. They would sneak up on the farmhouses at night, faces smeared with sooty black, to rout the enemy and drive them back, or capture or kill them. A simple farmhouse, the symbol of his youth and his legacy, became the front line in my father’s war. The home and hearth became the source of grim, determined actions where one could easily die.

Later, as the front lines advanced toward Rome, the soldiering was done in the hills and mountains, taking the high ground to gain advantage and flush the enemy out of the war-torn land. The muddy fields were replaced by rocky paths and unknown peril that perhaps lay just over the next wooded mountain ridge. Villages built vertically onto those mountains became warrens of enemy hideaways, with narrow cobblestone streets and rough stone houses serving as perfect sites for ambushes. And always, at the top, a nest of guns—machine guns, artillery—aimed at anyone daring to approach.

Dad walked that path daily for four months at Anzio, fighting in a campaign that went finally off the beachhead, in through the flat marshes, up and down the craggy hills and, town by town, capturing rivers and roads and railroads, inexorably toward Rome. He sat for days under freezing rains, slogged through muck, heard the constant barrage of airplanes, missiles, gunfire and bombs, and certainly the screaming of orders and agony.

What can I learn of my dad through all of this? Who was he before he went into it, and how did it change him? What I can sense, without knowing him as an adult or being able to ask him and observe him answering those questions, is that he performed with determination and valor. He swallowed his doubts and fears, probably on a daily basis, and kept moving forward, driven by duty to just do the job. He could not have done otherwise and come out of it.

Perhaps that’s the definition of courage, and perhaps that’s really what I’m looking for. What it takes to conquer an unknown foe, whether internal, external, or both.


Memorial Day at the War Cemetery

This is an excerpt from my book in process.

Clouds arrayed like an army on parade filled my vision and the sun shone through to warm my shoulders as a military band erupted into a melody of horns paced for marching. It was the American Memorial Day, but the commemoration was being held a few miles from Rome.

Although new to me, I realized that the scene was being played out around the world, as it had for many years. With the United States acting as a military partner with (and often protector of) people in far-flung places for many decades, our armed forces were deployed to many countries. I balanced ambivalent views about that, as American political motivations and self interest sometimes replaced allyship. But the U.S. had fought around the world, and following battles and wars had come cemeteries and memorials scattered over the globe. On our second trip to Anzio, once again I found myself walking the grounds of the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery and Memorial. The green acreage stitched with white crosses had been my first stop on that initial Italy trip, when I knew so little about my father’s war. Returning to walk his battlefields, I was beginning the task by taking part in a ritual of group remembering.

I turned my attention to the ceremony, where soldiers of two countries in their sharp and shiny dress uniforms had gathered to pay their respects. Three of my father’s descendants would represent him for the day. My older brother Steve, along with his wife Anne, and my younger sister Karen, with husband Jeff, joined Susie and I to parade in with a stream of civilian guests, crunching down the wide gravel path that lined the reflecting pool in front of the cemetery’s verdant grounds.

We gathered before the marble memorial building, white-columned and solemn. During that holiday weekend, we had hiked up Monte la Difensa, we had dined with a group of Force veterans and descendants, and we had toured the hillside towns on the fringes of Mussolini’s grand experiment. Standing on the former marshland, memorial flags rippling in the spring breeze, the consequences of the war seemed momentous. The pool mirrored the sky, a blue portal connecting the earth with the heavens. Shoulder to shoulder with Italians and our extended Force family, we walked in step along the precision-cut edges of the path, manicured lawns fanning out with lines of crosses. Were there locals among us who remembered the upheaval that battered its way to their doorstep? Were the elderly soldiers in our group reliving their moments of service? I gazed across the grounds, considering the place where our ancestors had marched to defend freedom from oppression and aggression and defy the visions that fevered into the heads of dictators.

An Italian honor guard ushered us into an area set for family of American servicemen and, walking past a line of locals, I felt myself to be a symbol, on display as an embodiment of the service that had been delivered by my father and his compadres. I sensed curious, considerate appraisal as we took our places, as though others were envisaging my connection, wondering whether their family members somehow had contact with my father. I looked at everyone that way as well. The citizens of Lazio, to me, symbolized an unconsidered aspect of war, where everyday people struggled to survive in the madness between dueling armies. In that respect we all shared one purpose: a personal connection to the blood and anguish that had taken place here seven decades previous. This landscape was populated with the ghosts of those connections, the untold stories of survival and procreation. We stood as the hopes and destinies that were made possible by the triumph of the Allies on this future memorial, this former battlefield.


A New Chapter

I’ve turned a page in my writing life with my history-based memoir, All Roads Lead to Rome: Tracing the Mysteries of My Father’s Battles. It chronicles my journey across my father’s battlefields as I sought to rediscover him and understand his part in one of our most storied military units of World War II, the First Special Service Force.

Here I intend to share stories, photos, links and history related to the book as I revise my manuscript and get it ready for publication.

Let’s start with this: Here’s my dad, Erick Gabriel Thorness: