Sunday, June 2, 2013

Remembering Bill

June 2, 2013

Dear friends,

The waste basket was the tipping point. I don’t mean that the wastebasket itself tipped over, although it was overflowing with advertisements from week-end sales. “Memorial Day Sales” appeared in large letters, often in red ink with stars and portions of the flag used as additional efforts to catch the reader’s attention. As I emptied the over-stuffed basket into the trash can, something in me tipped over from deep inner distress into words.

I grumbled aloud since I was alone and could safely talk audibly to myself. But then that awkward paragraph of Paul’s in his letter to the church at Phillipi came to my mind. “Do everything without complaining,” I remembered, and had a suspicion that in its essence that text covered post week-end clean-up chores.

“Yes, but. . .,” I began my inner self-justification, then, in that silent wordless way the Spirit speaks, I clearly heard, “Do not grumble. Say what you think thoughtfully, but do not grumble.” This Memorial Day Blog a week late is the result of my slow obedience.

Increasingly I have serious discomfort with the way as a culture we celebrate holidays. I am no fan of Santa Claus, of chocolate Easter bunnies or of Thanksgiving turkeys. I suppose I am becoming in some senses an all-season Scrooge—I can say “Bah! Humbug!!” on any given holiday with equal energy. But this year, due perhaps to the juxtaposition of several events, Memorial Day hoop-la particularly irritated me.

 When I returned to my desk after my trash basket trip, I sat down and asked myself seriously what it was that seemed inwardly to me so out of step, so incongruent and so inappropriate. After some self-examination, I discovered (little surprise here) that I was objecting to the Memorial Day application of what I call the “Brag and Buy” approach to holidays. At any holiday time, I find the push to buy things as celebration misleading and destructive at many levels. And I find bragging, whether done by individuals, groups, or nations, extremely distasteful, unattractive behavior. And this Memorial Day the idea that buying the biggest best gas grill and bragging about national economic and military superiority was proper celebration just tipped me over the edge. But I needed to say something—to say what I could say where I was—and stop the grumbling.

From my point of view, Memorial Day is for remembering—remembering in gratitude.  So—I remember, and share with you the memory of a soldier who was my friend.

His name was Bill. He was my uncle’s brother-in-law. My sister and I thought he was handsome: sandy haired, merry eyes and deep laughter. He worked hard, loved the land, and, we believed, loved me and my sister. He would play with us. He listened to our stories, and was the best person to go to when you had a splinter in your foot. He knew, somehow, a secret way to get the sliver out so that it didn’t hurt so much. And he would sit on the porch and play his guitar and sing country western songs. He once asked my sister and me why we thought they called the wind “Mariah.” When we told him we didn’t know, he just nodded his head, and said that he didn’t know either, but that if we ever found out we were to write him a letter and tell him because he’d really like to know.

Bill joined the Army in the summer after Pearl Harbor. He wrote occasionally, very brief letters. Reading and writing were not his favorite pastimes. We received a letter telling us that he was in Italy, and had come through the initial landing at Anzio Beach safely. He added, however, in his typical understated fashion, that he thought there was trouble ahead as the Allied Armies moved north.

We received no more letters from Bill personally. His mother was notified that he had been killed by random sniper fire one evening as he sat resting by his Jeep. He was buried somewhere in a military cemetery in Italy.

My sister and I were devastated by Bill’s death. We kept asking if it were possible that there had been a mistake.

Now at this age, having lived through World War II, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, I want more on Memorial Day than a barbeque, flags flown from neighbors’ porches, and two sentimental verses of “America, the Beautiful.”

I want my childhood question clearly unanswered. When war takes away the person most gifted at removing stickers, haven’t we made a mistake?

With you, longing for Shalom,


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