It is Memorial Day. The city is dank and cold for this time of year and we do have rain. This may keep me from the Amvets parade, but it does not remove the day from my thoughts.
I once heard a soldier called “a rough man ready to do violence on our behalf.” Such a thing is true, but violence is far from the character of the soldiers I have known. Rather they are blessed with the same kindness and vulnerability that marks everyone. And they are marked with the same finality.
My life has seen the tragedy of war firsthand and unfortunately we live in a time when many see the thing. We have seen terror brought to our shores and the innocent have been murdered. Our history, replete with bloodshed, knows the thing now as it never has. Still most of us in America sleep comfortably and our struggles are the average day to day ones.
I have known the stories of soldiers. I knew it growing up when classmates and their mothers have been given reason to honor this day in the most literal way and it has inhabited my thoughts on the dark nights of my childhood when I thought of the same possibility for myself. The happiest memory of my childhood was staring out a terminal window at Port Columbus as my mother pulled my sister and me into her arms pointing to a figure in uniform walking across the tarmac. Her exclamation of “there he is,” had more the excitement of a five year old girl than a grown woman. It was one more day that “death lost its sting.” Many other children had a very different experience.
In the mid seventies, I walked on German soil where two generations before my family had to bring necessary destruction to the land of our ancestors. There in a place that was now a liberal democracy, I would visit castles and explore the streets of medieval villages largely unaware of the full gravity as to why so many died there just thirty five years before. Before that, I basked in the sun of Southeast Asia where my family had a lovely home and garden in Bangkok unaware that 500 miles away there would soon be something called the Tet Offensive. That was the war that most personally touched me.
I watched a nation turn its scorn on its soldiers making them the scapegoats of policy makers oblivious to the fact that we were not exactly waging war against a kind and merciful enemy. And I watched the nation ignore the hurt and vulnerability of these men even as it failed to give a shred of honor to the more than 58,000 that returned in coffins. In a metal box kept in a spare bedroom I have preserved those things that I visit in my times of soudade, the things I must decide if they will one day be preserved or burned. Among these is a collection of letters. Most encourage me to be strong and to look after my mother and sister. Many are decorated with drawings of ducks and rockets. One letter I keep apart from all the others. It is an explanation of all the things he had done and a prayer that I never know the same. They were the words of a kind and gentle man who was forced to live in violent times. He personally knew more than a few that would be honored on this day.
I have been fortunate to have been spared his story and theirs. When I have been without a phone, it is because of a lost signal rather than a cut line. When I have been unable to cross a river, it has been because the bridge has been washed out rather than blown up. When I have needed to be strong and protective it has been for a very few and not for the millions. For me the coastline has been for frolic and vacation rather than being the starting point of liberation and mountains have been the dwelling places of all types of love rather than the place where the enemy waited.
I have been spared the story. Anyone who bothers to read this has been. If that is not cause to live boldly in this world, I don’t know what is. My father was also spared the greatest tragedy of the story, though he resided closer to its reality than most. He returned and had all those stories of love that “virgins with rifles” did not have. He also knew the struggle of family life when many others he shared time with did not.
They have no such stories. No….that is not true. They have many stories.
Theirs is the story of the rough coast of the Atlantic and the gentle shore of the Pfrimm, the tall mountains of the Rockies and the not so very tall ones in Appalachia. Theirs is the story of Busse Woods and the Palatinate Forest. They own the story of a cave in Kentucky and a candy store in Germany. They own the story of the stars falling over a field in Munchweiler as much as they own the story of those stars that held the sextant of my soul. It is appropriate Memorial Day begins the summer. Looking at my list, I realize I have many beautiful stories in the summer thanks to the generations of men and women who preserved my life and the life of this nation.
And lest I be selfish, theirs is also the greater stories….democracy and liberated peoples. Every white cross or Star of David along with the obelisks and headstones gives this proclamation. Yes too many died young and never knew the personal story of the stars or perhaps even the greatness of a great land, but we know these and we know these because of them. That we laugh and blush is for no other reason than their sacrifice. Today let us take a moment to stand in silence or kneel in prayer and when we speak again or rise from our knees, may we have the courage they had when they fought that we may go out and make our lives and the life of this great land a testimony to all they gave us by giving them those stories of which they may be proud.
Image: Arlington National Cemetery, Creative Commons license Celine Aussourd