As has become tradition in our household, my husband and I spent most of yesterday – the Sunday before Memorial Day – watching a marathon of HBO’s “Band of Brothers” miniseries. It is always either “Band of Brothers” or “Saving Private Ryan” in our household for Memorial Day – because it is my husband’s belief that nothing better conveys the service and sacrifice we honor on this day.
It also helps, I suppose, that my husband is fascinated by the people and stories in “Band of Brothers.” He waited patiently for the Catholic Standard & Times to run a piece – a year and a half in the making – about two of the Philadelphia members of Easy Company, “Wild Bill” Guarnere and Edward “Babe” Heffron. He wasn’t disappointed when Lou Baldwin’s story about the men finally saw print (read it at http://bit.ly/fyTjC). It merely confirmed what he already believed true – that the generation we’ve come to call “the Greatest Generation” exemplified a quality his father and mine had in abundance: you do what you have to and you don’t complain about it.
One of my brothers (I can’t remember which, since they are both equally brilliant and insightful) calls it the “Walk the Line” generation – after the Johnny Cash song – because that is what they exactly what they did, walked the line regardless of what that might entail.
My father served in two wars (that's him, on the right, in the photo at the top of this blog post, with his brother Alkis). He was U.S. Navy at the tail end of World War II, and U.S. Army during the Korean War. He was a pretty modest person, and not given to seeing himself painted in heroic strokes. He would have been uncomfortable reading about his kidnapping experience as I wrote about it in this blog, for example, or about his struggle with pancreatic cancer as I wrote about it in the print version of the CS&T years ago. All of what made my father heroic to me (and there is much, much more than what I’ve written about) would have elicited a particular look from him – puzzlement and skepticism combined – because to him his actions weren’t particularly praiseworthy, they just were.
His Korean War stories – the few he entrusted us with – were mostly matter-of-fact. That he taught himself to drive where he was stationed – in front of the front lines – and under fire. That his belief that you judge people by their actions not their race, social class or level of education was born in the war zone. In front of the front lines he served side by side with African Americans, Latinos and first-generation American sons of immigrants (as he was) and truly believed that a brotherhood of shared experience was forged there; a brotherhood that transcended the mores and prejudices of the day.
And then there were the not-so-matter-of-fact stories. The only thing that could reliably break my stoic father up was a recounting of how he had seen his best friend blown to bits beside him in Korea. He didn’t tell that story often.
My husband’s father, Frank Eugene Saunders – “Sandy” to those who knew him – never served in a war. He wanted desperately to enlist but his father refused to let him. Sandy was the only child and service in the armed forces would have meant that production at his parents’ farm would cease.
I never met my husband’s father (in the photo below with his wife and three sons), but my guess is that he didn’t feel particularly heroic acquiescing to this demand to stay stateside while war was waged overseas. But I read it differently – unselfishness is one of the defining characteristics of heroism, as is fortitude. Both qualities my future father-in-law had in spades. I remember reading through one his mother’s daily diaries and stumbling upon an entry in which she noted that Sandy’s father had come down with double pneumonia. She went on to write that the running of the farm (livestock, milking, every last chore and need) now fell to Sandy alone to perform – for however long his father was laid up. He was 12 at the time.
As I said – fortitude.
I admit to having mixed emotions about honoring war – I am of the Dorothy Day brand of Catholics who thinks the Biblical injunction against killing carries no asterisks to indicate exception – but have no such mixed feelings about honoring those who have served. In war zones and at home. In good wars and bad. Whether they have little American flags flying at their gravesites today – or not.
I have nothing to offer in honor but words:
For quiet heroism – heroism that hid in love and obligation and everyday sacrifice;
For heroic experience that I will never – hope never to have to – understand, writ big in blood and wounds that never truly heal;
For lives lived with honor that will never make it up to the big screen;
Thanks for walking the line.
Happy Memorial Day.