What did you do during the war?

What did you do during the war?

That’s the question everyone would always ask when first meeting someone. What did you do during the war? Did you help others? Did you hide? Did you run away, abandoning friends and family? Did you use what little opportunity existed to take advantage of others? Did you volunteer, and survive? How did you live, where, and how? Your actions during the war revealed your true self, the reasoning go.

That’s why I always lied. I’d say I helped feed soup to the needy. I helped tend to the farms. I worked in the factories. I would deliver supplies to hospitals on a bicycle. I’d build houses. I’d help maintain a website for volunteers. The stories I’d tell would vary. Mostly, I’d assemble them from bits and pieces I had learned from other people’s own stories, to give it some veracity. That time we were building a house, we ran out of bricks before we could finish it and we had to rebuild one of the rooms on a smaller size. Once a worker at my assembly line lost his finger and he was back to work the next day. One day I got a flat tire in my bicycle and I had to walk 10 miles at night to deliver medicine to a hospital. Things like that.

I’m not a bad person. At least that’s what I like to believe. But I’m still ashamed. Ashamed of what I did during the war.

Because, during the war, I didn’t do anything different. I still kept my job as a copywriter at an advertising agency. We create the advertisements you see in the those interactive screens you see everywhere. Funny how they’re so ubiquitous they don’t even have a name anymore. We just call them “screens”. And as you might have noticed, those didn’t stop during the war. Quite the opposite. They were more attractive than ever, for brands struggling to connect with a new type of consumer.

Our work didn’t change quite that much. We had an impact in how much we could charge, I suppose. Everyone took a big financial hit, during the war. And the products themselves changed too. Suddenly we were not advertising luxury items, but basic items like butter and milk. But I’d still do the same thing. Sit down, write a clever script for a commercial, one that the audience can relate to on an emotional level, and call it a day. Remember that commercial with the little girl bringing butter home? When we reveal that her family was actually gone, killed in a bombing run, but she would always buy the same brand of butter because that’s what her family used to have for breakfast? “Taste the never-ending love”. That’s the one. I wrote that. Well, part of it at least.

When you were waking up to go to your assembly line, creating random bits and pieces of a tank body – or any random sort of thing people decided they needed that week – I was working remotely creating advertisements for toothpaste that would circle the country. Our advertising network never stopped working. I wouldn’t even leave my house. It was so easy to pretend I was away.

To me, the biggest impact of the war was having to filter that out from my news feeds. At first, I was as involved with the war as anyone else. After a while, though, I started filtering that out. I stopped caring, I suppose. It was always the same news, always the same deliberation. I just wanted it to end; I didn’t care what a Premier or President or whoever said about someone else the other side of the world.

A lot of people kept their jobs. Bus drivers. farmers, of course. That guy at the deli, forgot his name. But most of these people were contributing something; they were serving some of the basic needs of a city. I was just trying to get you to buy this brand of soda, not that other brand of soda. Because in trying times, your body demands sugar. Well, whatever passes for sugar today at least.

I wasn’t always like that. In the beginning, right after the war ended, I would do the mistake of telling people what I did. I didn’t think I’d have any reason to lie. Most would just stare at me. Some would sigh. Many wouldn’t talk to me again, or would start treating me differently, I could tell. Once a girl slapped me in the face when I told her I built ads. She was drunk, I suppose, but my answer to her question was still the trigger.

It took me a while to comprehend. During the war, most people had changed. Out of their elements, with a sudden shift in responsibilities, they became something else. More grounded, some would say. Like they had their priorities reset. And, I suppose, they didn’t want to deal with someone who didn’t go through that. Maybe they thought I wouldn’t understand. Maybe I offended them. Maybe they were jealous.

The path of least resistance was to join them. I made up my stories shyly at first. I’d sometimes say I didn’t want to talk about it, and many would nod in understanding. I then started making little stories to make it seem more plausible, but not fantastic.

No one ever found out. Sometimes I’d have people questioning some details. It was easy to just pretend you did so many things you forgot the details of some of those. No one wanted to pry, you see. It was really just a conversation starter, like asking someone what they did for a living before the war. There’s no right or wrong answer, you just assume everyone has a nice job. A robber wouldn’t tell you he robbed elderly people for a living. He’d tell you he was a food delivery guy, or a construction worker, and you’d never question it. Maybe you’d chat about it, to make conversation, but no one really cared about the details. It was the same with me.

After a while, I started believing my own lies. I even went to post-war traumatic treatment sessions. I would tell a sad story to complete strangers – a story I had heard from someone else – and cry. People would understand. I started becoming part of it.

Today, I understand those people much better. Once I met someone who was a celebrity blogger of some kind. During the war, he continued blogging about celebrities. Some people really wanted to know what this actor or that singer was up to during the war, it seems. I walked away from that conversation pretty fast, and never talked to him again.

When I’m selling you chocolate, and the girl in the commercial talks about how she didn’t have chocolate anymore during the way, I can understand that. I connect to that. Maybe not as deeply as you. But enough to know what makes you tick; I’m going to sell you the hell out of that chocolate.

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