History, Heritage, and the Stories We Tell

On Monday, we celebrated the Memorial Day holiday, a day set aside to honor those who have served in the military and to remember those who gave their life for our nation.  My thoughts went quickly to my grandfather, a WWI veteran who filled my head with stories of his wartime exploits in France.

WWIYes, in many ways, I had a rather odd childhood. Along with “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, I heard tales of Ypres and the fighting in France.

Both my grandfather and his brother served in the first World War. My grandfather, in fact, saved his brother’s life — although that was one story he never told. I learned of it only after his death. In looking back, I can recall occasional references to it, but I didn’t know the details.

My grandfather was a rather brash, bold gentleman, the sort of fellow who saw what needed to be done…and did it.

I don’t know the name of the battlefield on which my great-uncle nearly lost his life, but as the medics walked about the dead and wounded after the battle ended, they marked those who could be saved. Ones with little or no chance of survival were passed by.

The medics walked past Michael Zungs, shook their heads, and moved on.

“He’s not going to make it,” they said.

Yes, he was going to make it, and my grandfather made certain of it. He slipped into the medic’s tent, stole a white coat, and slipped it over his uniform. He then made the rounds again, marking his brother as one to save.


Missouri WarSeveral years ago, I began exploring family history in a bit more depth. I found fascinating stories of experiences during the War Between the States. Digging deeper still, I came to appreciate not just my family stories but my cultural heritage. I learned a great deal about “The German Experience” during the Civil War era here in the hotly-divided “border state” of Missouri.

It was a place of terror.  Confederates roamed the countryside calling out Union supporters and executing them in cold blood.

Yes, I could tell you the tale of how my great-great-grandfather’s life was spared because of his son’s poor English, but that’s another story for another time.

My point here is that we all have stories. We have a family heritage that has played a role in history. We each have a culture filled with traditions, beliefs, stories, and ways of looking at the world around us.  It’s important for us to explore that heritage, be it Jewish, Russian, Latin American, Irish…or whatever.

It’s important for us as authors. It’s also important for us, I think, as human beings.  It helps to know the past, and to see ways in which it’s shaped us.  The more we know about who we are and where we’ve come from, the richer our writing will be, the more depth our stories and characters will have, and the stronger the connections will become between the words we write and the people who read them.