Sunset on the Prairie
By Bob McPeek
Like many survivors of conflict, many veterans are reluctant to discuss their war experiences. There are painful memories that many prefer to avoid if not forget. Yet there are some stories that deserve to be told, if for no other reason than to let them out.
Such as my father’s story. When he died in 1980, he took his untold World War II story with him… or so I thought. He never talked about his experiences with me, his only child. There weren’t many opportunities as my father, a career non-commissioned officer, was usually stationed apart from the family until my mother died when I was 15.
Years after his death, I was visiting my hometown Waukegan, Illinois and stopped by to show my childhood home to my wife. A young child was playing in the front yard, and his mother came out to see who these strangers were who were looking and pointing.
When I told her I grew up in the house, she immediately asked if my name was McPeek. When I said yes, she replied, “Wait here. I have something for you.”
The new owner had done extensive remodeling to the house I grew up in, tearing off the roof and adding a second story. During the work, she discovered a dusty book hidden in the rafters. Sensing its importance, she had saved it for years. As she handed to me, she said, “Now I know who I was saving it for.”
I was stunned. Written across the book’s handbound cover in my father’s ornate hand was the book’s title, “Rain or Mud: A Soldier’s Book of Verse,” and his name. Inside, on yellowing Red Cross stationery, were poems he wrote during the war as he fought across North Africa and on into Sicily and Italy. Some detailed his experiences and the places he saw, others expressed his homesickness, and the rest touched on the extremes of war, balanced by the occasional flight of fancy.
I inherited my father’s love of words, most evident in my work as a songwriter. I made several frustrating attempts to set his poems to music, but it took a trip to Italy and visits to war memorials there for those efforts to gel. I also read the history of the Africa and Italy campaigns, realizing that my father’s early enlistment (pre-Pearl Harbor) meant he was part of Operation Torch, the invasion of Algeria in 1942.
This research let me fill in the gaps in his poetry. I took words from three of his poems, added some of my own, and put together his story. The chords and melody seemed to flow of their own volition—in fact, some of the melody came to me in a dream.
In my teenage years, when I did live with my father, I had a series of loud and not-very- good rock bands that practiced in the basement. I hope this song is a fitting payback for the horrible din he suffered through, though he never complained.
The song is written by Bob McPeek and performed by The Erasables. The band participates in an annual Winter Solstice concert in Gainesville, FL that benefits the local chapter of Veterans for Peace. “The response from the audience to the song inspired us to record the song and create a video, which is produced by David Beede, whose father also had a war story… but he took it with him to an early grave.”