By Way of Captivity
by Shelley W. Stout
A writer's inspiration happens by chance, when unexpected events arouse and stir the imagination. On a summer trip with my sister to a rural Georgia town, the personal account of a Persian Gulf War soldier inspired me in ways I never would have predicted.
Not far from Atlanta is a historical site unlike any other—the National Prisoner of War Museum. In Andersonville, Georgia, this museum, cemetery, and the adjacent park are dedicated to those men and women of The United States armed forces who served in all wars and were held against their will. During the Civil War, more than 45,000 Union soldiers were confined at the Andersonville POW camp, and nearly 13,000 of them died from over-crowding, exposure, and abominable sanitary conditions.
When my sister and I began our journey from Charlotte, the roads were damp from a summer rainstorm. Dense humidity hung in the air. We drove for eight hours through parts of South Carolina and Georgia, on highways lined with crepe myrtles and produce stands selling everything from Vidalia onions to bottled honey mustard dressing.
Arriving at the museum, we first toured the grounds. The cemetery acreage stretched before us spiked with countless rows of perfectly spaced graves, like teeth in an expansive jaw.
Inside the museum, I found glass display cases, wall murals, and exhibits; including kiosks with informative videos of individual POW's detailed accounts. A particular soldier recounted his experience during the Persian Gulf War. He had been captured in February 1991, in northern Kuwait during his 30th mission. Throughout his months of solitude, he began a mental journey. Undistracted, he was powerless to prevent the flood of childhood and adolescent recollections. He remembered details of his school classrooms and the names of each one of his schoolmates. Remarkable and sometimes disquieting memories inundated his consciousness. He realized the human brain is a storehouse of every moment ever spent—awake or asleep.
I sat in front of the monitor, unable to imagine silencing the distractions of my everyday life. As a wife and working mother, I found that my days were already so full, it would have been impossible.
But the idea that my brain somehow held on to every shred of every event; the sorrows, the joys, the insignificant and the grand, excited me. I would simply need a way of extracting it—a way to turn off the distractions.
For several weeks after returning home, I considered my own past, but realized I needed a functional way to assemble the memories. I started by writing simple "chapter headings", as if for my memoirs. I spent weeks focusing on these chapter headings. Some events were deeply personal, and many I had never revealed to anyone. Ultimately, I decided to write them as short stories, each featuring or inspired by a different event.
Some of my memories were of major incidents, and some were only minute occurrences. I recalled memories long ago forgotten—the feel of the soft velvet Christmas skirt my mother had sewn for me; the name of an unusual person I had met only once as a child.
I remembered visiting our grandparents' farm in Johnstown, Ohio, and being trapped with my cousin inside an empty, rusted silo until someone heard us screaming to escape. When I was only six years old my mother was unable to speak for days following thyroid surgery. I relived the fear, when I first saw the surgical scar—her neck had been sliced open from one side to the other.
Inside me was the embarrassment and shame, when in 1967, my siblings and I were virtually the only children of divorce in our school.
Along with the sorrows came the joys. I recalled my first real kiss. The enchantment of holding my newborn babies in my arms and nursing them, the thrill of securing my first job after college graduation. The list of events expanded, and continued to enlarge as I wrote. While writing my first novel, certain events I had put aside and locked away now floated above me, waiting to be snatched down and put on paper.
I found it ironic that the soldier who had inspired me may have wanted to forget the very event that made him remember his life in such detail. Being held against his will was horror enough, but after having survived the ordeal, it too would be an enduring memory, just like everything else that had ever happened to him.
With deepest respect, I am grateful for the inspiration the soldier imparted to me by way of his captivity.
Shelley Stout's fiction has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies. She is the winner of the 2004-05 Elizabeth Simpson Smith Award.