Following last week’s article on bliss, I thought I might follow up with some real, down and dirty experience, the raw material of the South of God blog.
I’ve been working hard, writing, working on a couple of articles that have captured my interest. These are the rabbits that I see on the horizon of my attention, and like Elmer Fudd, with a better tailor, I chase those wascally wabbits until they are mine.
One is on multi-dimensional growth and the other, boundary spanning. Piqued your interest? I thought not. They are practically finished, but on this Memorial Day weekend, I felt like a follow-up might be called for.
Having talked about following one’s bliss, how about those women and men whose “greater purpose” was service to their country, some giving it all. An oath of words formalized the commitment, training honed the form, but the cost was their very blood and breath. So Elmer will try to focus on Memorial Day.
Memorial Day brings to mind so many memories. Honestly, for years it signaled the beginning of summer, the “break” we needed from the routine. In my family, it meant climbing in the Suburban and heading to the beach, for golf, Goofy golf, drinks with umbrellas, dinner at Schooners or Captain Anderson’s. Galloways Gone Wild! along with those infamous girls on a bus.
That version of Memorial Day remains in my memory, fading in that sunset and residual buzz.
After years of serving as a priest, my Memorial Day seemed to evolve, change with my experience of the dead, and tending to those left behind. Clearly, these days my prime memories at Memorial Day are of soldiers, some that I have buried, some that died after their active service in battle was done but still in uniform, while others were veterans who deserved and received military honors.
I remember so many hot, humid Texas days, walking in front of a casket, borne by friends, leading a procession to a grave, freshly dug, with the smell of clay still pungent. The taps would play, evoking tears. The twenty-one gun salute would resound, causing me to flinch with each shot. The formerly flag-draped casket would slowly descend down into the good earth, as the flag is folded carefully, precisely, and given to the family, with thanks expressed from the country by the commanding officer. The most painful for me recently has been the burials of service folk who have returned, bearing the invisible wounds of war, and wind up taking their lives. I count them in my prayers on Memorial Day, another casualty of combat.
I was always moved by the burial of soldiers, in any state of service, due to their sacrificial giving of themselves to service. Frankly, I am in awe of those who answered the call to serve their country out of a selfless commitment to something larger than themselves. I witnessed a generation respond courageously after that blue sky day in New York as we came to a new reality on 9/11. A Naval Academy grad, quarterback of my high school, and naval commander, Ken McBrayer died at the top of one of those twin towers. The extremist act touched the deepest nerve in our collective national body, resulting in a brief moment of unity, and a primitive reaction of revenge. And on reflection, the brokers played that natural reaction like a Mississippi gambler makes a bad deal a winning hand….for him.
Memorial Day forces my hand to look at my own personal dealing with that dilemma. I struggled with that commitment as I faced the draft to a war that I had come to believe as misguided. I was in full-tilt boogie mode as it was my first honest-to-God ethical decision that had any real consequence. I had dodged an ethical issue of abortion with a girlfriend who turned out not to be pregnant, but we had struggled mightily, not so much on the ethics, but how our parents would respond. Fortunately, we emerged chastened and smarter, without the pain of making such a difficult decision.
The war in Vietnam, or NAM as Forrest Gump would say, became very real for me as my draft number was about to be called. I consulted my pastor, my dad, a professor, and a few close friends to get their take on things. I had wished my grandfather, my own John Wayne, was alive for a consult, but I figured that I knew what he would say. But by then, I was differentiated enough to know that it would come down to my decision, my choice. Would I accept the draft, and enter the military? Would I head to Canada, or maybe a Caribbean island, like Eleuthera where I could hang out in the wind and sun? Or, would I file for a Conscientious Objector status, based on my religious beliefs? This was the first time it occurred to me that my commitment to Jesus as the Christ might mean that I needed to say “No” to the order of my government to go and kill. It dragged me into a self-consciousness that was new, and uncomfortable, in terms of the consequences of my decision.
It was no longer the daily choice of what to eat and where. It was not the banal decision as to what fraternity I would join, as consequential as that decision turned out to be. It wasn’t as vague as my decision as to what my major would be. Nor as cavalier as my decision as to what courses I would take in my first freshman quarter, which actually wound up shaping my entire life from a fateful choice of Religion 103 with Dr. Jack Boozer who rocked my world. I took it because I thought it would be an easy “A”! I mean, anyone can ace a religion course. Lord have mercy.
Actually, I grappled, wrestled, struggled with my decision over military service, and it would definitely have consequences. Having had relatives and neighbors who had died in Vietnam lifted it above the conceptual model of ethics which I was used to. My ass, literally, was on the line.
The draft was stopped the year I was to receive my number, so all my wrestling was like Live Atlanta Wrestling, just for show. But not really. My self, my soul, my ethics were engaged which “grew me up” perhaps before my time, but certainly not before some of my friends found themselves going into the service. It proved to be my introduction to ambiguity, a friend that would be my constant companion for life.
I can’t come to Memorial Day without remembering my struggle. I think about the young men, like my grandfather who volunteered for World War I and served overseas in battle. Or my father who served in World War II in a B-17. Or my dad who served in Korea. Or my cousins who served in Vietnam, who brought back their own scars. Fortunately for me, I did not have to make a decision, but every Memorial Day, I pause to think about those who did, and willingly went into service, and some who paid the ultimate price of sacrifice. And I shudder, give thanks, and have wept.
My brother and I missed that gig. I am pretty sure I would have sucked. A few of my college friends, who were in ROTC, made the military their career in the Air Force, and I am mighty proud of them. They were of the Top Gun breed, but I would have probably been getting them coffee in the mess, or slapping them on the back when they returned to the aircraft carrier. Ice Man or Maverick would have eluded my appellation. Joker seems appropriate.
My high school buddy, Alan Burks, proudly posts on Memorial Day of his son, Pete, who gave his life while serving in Iraq. I wish I could have known him. I can’t imagine the mix of pain and pride my friend must feel every day, but particularly on this day, as we remember those who died while in service to our country. I include Pete in every one of my Daily Prayers, as well as Alan, as it is my minute way of honoring all of those who have made a sacrifice beyond my imagination, which includes parents and family. Alan continues his son, Pete’s legacy with a fund to support active soldiers, http://www.unsungherofund.org . It is a worthy, and immediate way to support our troops and their personal needs while serving. I encourage you to go to this website, look at the face of Pete, and consider a contribution.
Another friend, Lou Koon, served as an Army chaplain who now works with veterans that are returning from combat, some devastated psychologically with PTSD. The statistics are staggering as to the suicide rate but my buddy Lou is kicking it by training folks to recognize the symptoms that point to suicidal danger so that we can help them before it’s too late. Preventative work is a crucial part of Lou’s work. He tirelessly trains groups like police, firefighters, and civic group to learn how to watch for signals of suicide. His organization is named Armed Forces Mission. You can sign up for his practical training, which I went through myself to test it out. A superb program, that is geared to meet the needs of the general public and will give you some basic skills. And you can also donate to help fund this essential service to our wider community. If you are looking to find a worthy thing to give your time and money to, this is it. Contact them at http://www.afmfamily.org .
There are two Southside Atlanta dudes who are making a difference in this crazy ass world we are living in these days. I am proud of their work and am inspired by their love in action.
I pray that your Memorial Day was more that just a chance to go to the beach or grill out, or buy that once-in-a-lifetime dream mattress from Mattress R Us. Those are wonderful activities that are part of living in this country. But Memorial Day is a Holy Day of remembering that sacrifice which was given on our behalf by our brothers and sisters.
I hope you caught a whiff of the smell of sacrifice and are finding your own particular and peculiar way to offer service to our community. That is a work that we all share and can not shirk. This thing called democracy is a fragile thing, and takes us all to make it work. And as my Constitutional law professor told me, it is an experiment, grand and beautiful, but an experiment that can end. Thankfully, there are heroes among us, willing to shoulder the weight and carry on. And, there are rumors of angels, those who bear our collective grief and transform the moment, redeeming our time. On Memorial Day, remember that.