Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

Cape Cod

Memorial Day, 2023

“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.”

When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”~ Tecumseh

This week on the Today Show Harry Smith told the story of a young pilot who flew his disintegrating B-17 upside down over Germany so that his crew, his friends, could eject and live. Just this year his remains were found, and he returned home a hero. His funeral was attended by his little sister, now 93, and the son of one of the crew members, a man who never exists but for the heroism of that young pilot whose funeral gave life to his story.

It’s the stories, right? I mean, after all, without the stories what even mattered? The stories matter. Whether they died in the heat of battle or in the cold of infirmity, the warriors all have stories. The stories are all important.

It’s remarkable how difficult it is to get at those stories, though. Read the newspapers today, all of the stories about those few remaining soldiers and sailors and airmen from WWII. There’s a common thread; each of them at some point, in some way, says something along the lines of “I’m not a hero”, or “I don’t consider myself a hero”. And so the stories that were the most formative, the ones that turned that one soldier or that one sailor into who s/he became, they tend to be slow in coming, if they come at all. Yet those are the ones that matter most.

The warriors still among us tend toward silence. For sure my Dad did. It’s not so much a secret thing (although there is a small group who simply mustn’t tell their stories) I don’t think, as it is a continuation of the protector role our airmen, sailors, soldiers and marines assume. They don’t so much keep the stories secret as they shield us from the effects of the stories, so powerful were those effects on them when they happened. Yet again, to understand those who remain, and to try to know those who have departed, the stories matter.

I drive by a cemetery filled with the graves of those who fought, some who died in the fighting and others like my Dad who tried to bury the fighting they left behind. I try to conjure their stories. It’s pure folly. Dead men tell no tales, eh? Humanity learns of conflict and war from the stories told about both, and humans learn about each other the same way. Asking to hear the stories is an act of respect. Listening to the stories can be an act of love. Telling the stories is a little of both. The stories of the men and women who have fought our wars are important.

A friend from my youth, a coach not too very much older than I, once broke down and cried over his story. A very junior officer, his story of leadership and loss comes to me every year on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. I know him so much better, understand who his is so much better because I heard his story. So, too, is my knowledge of the men and women younger than I who have served and fought and graced me with their stories.

Life is long unless you are unlucky, but even the lucky run out of time. We have no Civil War survivors, no one from WWI to tell their stories. Those few from WWII still here are reticent, and time grows short. Even Korea fades ever quickly to time’s passage. Dad was once marooned by his illness somewhere between 1947 and 1974; much of his “time” then seemed to be spent in Korea. The smallest of consolations for us, his progeny, was that we learned a bit of his story.

This Memorial Day let us all remember not only those who served and those who died in that service, but let us all remember their stories as well. Let us ponder the lessons those stories teach about not only humanity but also about the warrior, the person we remember. Let us encourage those who still walk among us, especially those whose journeys have been long and must be soon ending, to tell us their stories while they still can. Let us listen to those who know the stories behind each headstone as we gather in their honor. We have much to learn from the stories, about war and conflict, about the people who fight, about ourselves.

The stories matter.

I’ll see you next week…

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