Duffel Stew

Owen Heninger is a retired psychiatrist who served during the Korean War when his unit was called up. Today, he and his wife have different views about what he should do with the mementos from that military period of his life.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns “Why don’t you just throw it away, Dear?” my wife asked with the incredulous tone of wives everywhere who don’t fully appreciate the emotional attachment that former military men have for their duffel bags.

She should be happy that my old duffel bag is empty.  I long ago threw away all of the khaki shirts, pants, and skivvies that I had toted from Utah to Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Germany, Colorado, and then back to Utah.

I had reluctantly let go of the small steel-cased radio that kept me in touch with home doings.  I even let go of the portable record player I had managed to wedge into my duffel bag when we were “Federalized” to help fight the Korean War in September 1950.

I got rid of all those personal possessions so comforting in military life:  the toilet kit I had and those field boots I polished to a high gloss.  I wrenched loose and got rid of all my prized hats.  All my G.I. socks are long gone, and even my highly valued Ike jacket and field coat have been jettisoned.

I didn’t keep any of the foul weather boots, wool overcoat, or other gear issued to me in Germany.  I didn’t keep my shelter-half, and I no longer have either my plastic helmet liner or my steel helmet (issued to protect my head should the Russians start a war while I was in Germany).

I am certainly not going to divulge to her that as I longingly let go of things that had become part of me, the items remaining picked up the attachment force of what was discarded. I feel like Earnest Shackleton in 1914, stranded on an Antarctic ice floe, where whatever broke off or melted away, made what was left even more valuable.

I had come to concentrate all the values and memories of two years in the service into my now empty duffel bag.

But she’s too clever for me.  I put my duffel bag in the back of my closet – she finds it.  I put it high in the garage and the same thing happens.  I hide it in the trunk of my car, and it suddenly appears in the trash barrel.  What am I to do?

My wife says, “Take a picture of it, Dear!”  But that would end my dreams of one day re-enacting some of the proud moments of my military career – at least the part where we walked down the gangplank of our returning troop ship to be greeted by steady land, USA doughnuts and coffee, a military band playing “The Stars and Striped Forever” while proudly carrying a full duffel bag.

As I touch my bag, associations flow back like life-saving water down the California Aqueduct.  How else could I remember?  Surely not by a picture of an empty duffel bag!

Egads! I am at my wit’s end.  My ancient mother can’t be expected to store my empty duffel bag in the small space allotted to her in an Assisted Living Home.  My brothers are too far away.  Our children have their own stuff.  Maybe I could put it in a museum where I could visit it.

Perhaps I could give it to a friend who would let me touch it periodically - but I’ve already asked, and if they were Army, they have their own duffel bags, and if they were Navy, they have sea bags.  So for right now I feel flummoxed!

O Lord!  What’ll I do when she finds where I have hidden my empty Assistant Scoutmaster Boy Scout backpack for over 22 years?



Published: Nov. 13, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 31