A Memorial Day Memory Re-visited

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Today my brother Bob and sister-in-law Janice will drive to Indiantown Gap National Cemetery to lay flowers on Dad’s grave.

Protestant Service on Saipan led by my father, Kenneth Campbell Stewart, end of WWII.

Our father served as the Army Air Force chaplain for troops in the South Pacific before, during, and after the bombing of Tokyo. During Dad’s absence, my mother and I lived with my grandparents in Boston and South Paris, Maine, where Dad’s safe return was foremost in prayers before every meal.

I was three-and-a-half when Dad came home at the end of the war. The memory is clear as a bell. I watched as my father emerge from the B-29 bomber, walked down the ramp and across the tarmac at Boston’s Logan Airport. When he picked me up and took me in his arms, I reared back and asked “Are you really my Daddy?” “I am,” he said, “and I’m never going away again.”

All these years later, my hair has turned white, my skin is wrinkled, the world is mute without the hearing aids, my bones ache, and my head hurts most days. But I’m still the three year-old who felt the heavy weight of concern around my grandparents’ table listening for news from the South Pacific

It takes a lifetime for some memories to become clear. “Memorial Day and the Soldier’s Helmet,” published two years ago in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), offers a Memorial Day example.

Today I’m remembering again that night when the burly WWII Marine veteran unburdened himself of the locked box of hidden artifacts from the Japanese soldier he’d killed in hand-to-hand combat during the American invasion of Saipan. The ending of the story written just a few years ago is sorely incomplete.

So…today I observe Memorial Day by returning to the original sense of Memorial Day as a day to remember the fallen – ALL of them – but even more, a day to re-commit to ending the insanity of war itself. It’s a day when I remember the in-breaking of sacredness – three men in the living room – two live Americans and one Japanese – and pray for something better for us all.

Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, p.12

This Memorial Day the three-year-old who waited for his father’s return remembers how strange memory is. As Bob and Janice lay flowers on Dad’s grave today, I am more conscious of a glaring omission. There were not three men in the living room that night. There were four. Dad was the first man there. Bless you, Dad. RIP.

photo of Indiantown Gap National Cemetery
Entrance to Indiantown Gap National Cemetery, East Hanover Township, PA

Grace and Peace,

Gordon

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 31, 2019

Memorial Day 2018

Views from the Edge has been silent for awhile. Given my state of mind, it probably should stay quiet longer. But Memorial Day gives the dumb a hook on which to hang some of what’s been banging around my weary head.

Flags are everywhere today. American flags. They decorate the graves of the fallen in our national cemeteries and wave in front yards across America. But things are different this year.

While driving to the cabin by the wetland here in Minnesota, I see a different flag — a blue one with the name of the current president — waving from a homeowner’s flagpole where the red, white, and blue stars-and-stripes rippled stood before 2017. The dead we honor on Memorial Day didn’t die for this substitution. They fought against it.


Trump flagThe dead are unable to see the American flags posted at their graves or hear the sobering “Taps” that honors their sacrifice. Nor can they see the other flag that has taken its place on the flag pole where Old Glory once waved on Memorial Day. They didn’t die for this.

Like the dead, Memorial Day 2018 leaves me speechless.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 28 (Memorial Day), 2018.

Taps in different keys

Sixty-three years ago, the American Legion recruited two 12 year-old trumpet players to play “Taps” for the Memorial Day Service at the Glenwood Memorial Cemetery in Broomall, Pennsylvania.

It was a rare privilege granted the few. One of us would play a short refrain — “da ta daaaah…”; the other would echo it from below the wall.  The next refrain would follow, as would the echo until the special rendering of “Taps” had moved everyone to the respectful silence appropriate to Memorial Day.

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It was a nice idea. We practiced. All went well. Very dramatic! Until Memorial Day when Alex’s echo came back in a different key.

The 12 year-olds lost it!!! The only sounds were a few choked back laughs. There was no “Taps” that year. The 12 year-old weren’t invited back when they were 13.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day – a Call to Silence

Memorial Day calls more for silence than for speeches — the silence of the living standing before the graves of fallen soldiers.

Silence alone is golden today — a deep silence broken only by the haunting sound of a bugle calling us into the presence of that which is deeper than many words.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Memorial Day, May 29, 2017.

Memorial Day and the Soldier’s Helmet

“Memorial Day and the Soldier’s Helmet” is read aloud here from Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (p. 10f.). This recording is not as professional as it will be this weekend when it airs on Minnesota Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” This practice run starts out a little mushy! But it’s good enough that Day1.org posted it yesterday on their site.

Many thanks to Chuck Lieber for making it possible to turn “Be Still!” into a podcast.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 24, 2017.

Memorial Day and the soldier’s helmet

Japanese soldier's helmet

Japanese soldier’s helmet

Memorial Day once honored the fallen soldiers of the Civil War, both Union and Confederate soldiers. They called it “Decoration Day” when they laid wreathes and flowers on the graves of the dead soldiers.

When I learned this in elementary school, it struck me as more than a little strange. My father had served as a Chaplain on Saipan. My father was a good guy. The people he went to war against were not. How strange to honor soldiers who fought against each other, “heroes” all, killing each other, especially when one side was good and the other was evil. And then, on top of that it seemed to pay homage to something we were also taught to scorn: war itself. It was more than a little confusing.

Many years later, it’s a Monday morning. I’m a pastor. (The person in this story is since deceased.)

A 70-something year old ex-Marine calls the church office. He’s a big ma, what tough guy call “a man’s man,” a World War II Marine, 6’2”. 250 lbs, part of the invasion of Saipan in the South Pacific when he was 17.

“My wife’s out of town. Can you come over tonight for a drink?”

I’ve never been to their home. I’m guessing he wants to talk about his marriage.

He takes my coat. We sit down. He pours us each a Scotch.

“You know, your first couple of years here I didn’t come to church much. I didn’t like your preaching. I’m not one of these peace guys. But something made me keep coming back. I started to listen and I kept coming, and all this peace stuff and Jesus stuff started to get to me. It’s been a long time now. That’s why I called you. I hate the Japs! I know I’m not supposed to call ‘em ‘Japs’. I hate them! But I can’t hate them anymore.”

He gets up and walks over to the mantel above the huge stone fireplace.

“My wife has no idea what’s in this box. I’ve never told her. I can’t tell her. I don’t want it anymore. I’m asking you to take it. I can’t live with it anymore.”

He takes the box from the mantel, places it on the ottoman in front of me, and opens the locked box with a key. He is shaking now and crying.

“This poor bastard! I killed this [expletive] with my bear hands!”

His whole body shakes as, one by one, he removes the contents from the box –

a soldier’s helmet;
a lock of hair;
two eye teeth;
dog tags, and
a gun –

that had belonged to the Japanese soldier he killed in hand-to-hand combat on Saipan.

“All these years of hate. And this poor bastard was just doing the same thing I was. He was just doing his duty to his country. How will God ever forgive me? I just want this stuff out of my house. I want it out of my life! How will God ever forgive me? I can’t hate any more. I can’t.”

We stand in the middle of his living room. I hold him like a baby: a grown man – a “man’s man” – sobbing and shaking with guilt, sorrow, and grief.

I take the box and the contents home. I give the gun to a friend who’s a gun collector. I have no memory of what I did with the box or the artifacts of what remained of the Japanese soldier. Memory is like that. It was too personal. It was too hot.

_____________

So…today I observe Memorial Day by returning to the original sense of Memorial Day as a day to remember the fallen – ALL of them – but even more, to re-commit to ending the insanity of war itself. It’s a day when I remember the in-breaking of sacredness – three men in the living room – two live Americans and one Japanese – and pray for something better for us all.