Independence Day was celebrated quietly in our house this year. No big barbeques or fireworks. Yesterday and today, my wife and I finally got around to watching the excellent HBO mini-series “The Pacific.” I know, I know, it’s really more appropriate for Memorial Day or Veterans Day. So sue me.
We watched the whole thing in two long sittings, following in rapt fascination and awe the dramatized stories of a half dozen real-life World War II U.S. Marine Corps veterans. Heroes. I have to admit I cried through most of it.
Why the tears? After all, I’ve studied WWII since I was in grade school. I’ve read hundreds of books and watched virtually every halfway decent movie or mini-series ever made on the subject. My favorite movies are almost all WWII themed. But this time it really hit home.
You see, I’m supposed to be spending the next hour or two polishing off my notes for Sunday School tomorrow morning. Last year I was deeply moved—honored—to be asked to teach the senior adult men’s class at our church. Most of these guys have been attending this class since before I was born. What can I possibly teach this group? How can I provide any new insight to men who have been studying the Bible since my parents were in diapers? Men who have so many more decades of experience than I?
I struggle with these questions every week, but now I’m really at a loss. Many of the men in “my” class are war veterans. World War II. Korea. Viet Nam. This was their story. Let me share just a little of it.
Ed was both a bomber pilot and bombardier. Don’t tell him the war isn’t personal from 25,000 feet. He could clearly see his targets through the optics and still sees faces of people on the receiving end of his bombing runs.
Frank survived the “Frozen Chosin” Reservoir and the -35F Siberian front that made those 17 days an icy hell.
Walter was in the first few waves to reach the beaches of Normandy, where he was gravely wounded and left for dead for three days amid a pile of corpses half submerged in the English Channel.
Tom chased Germans across France and Belgium in a Sherman tank. His last memory of the war was a heated, fast-moving exchange between his corps and a Nazi armored group. His next memory was forty-two days later when he was out-processed from the Army in New Jersey. To this day he believes it has been God’s way of protecting him from the horror of war.
Sam was with the Marines in the Pacific from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima. A small man with a ready smile, it’s hard to picture him as one of the same filthy, worn out but hardened warriors whose tales unfolded before me these last two days.
These are but a few of the stories of the men in this class. Heroes every one, but they don’t see it that way. They just did what was asked of them. What was needed. Then each made his way back home to the tiny town of Gorman, NC—hardly more than a wide spot in the road, really—and got on with the job of living.
They farmed, sold real estate and cars, repaired elevators, managed grocery stores. They married and raised families, teaching them a love of country and—even more importantly—of God. They very quietly and modestly built an America worth living in. An America they were willing to die for.
Now they move slowly, feeling every creak of degenerating joints and spines. Pause for breath as they make their way upstairs to the sanctuary, suits hanging just a bit more loosely on once broad and powerful shoulders. Time has robbed them of the physical strength and energy of youth. But it has given, too: humor, character, wisdom, pride. No, not the self-centered pride of the arrogant young, but the properly deserved satisfaction of accomplishment. Of lives well lived. Of lives worth emulation.
I still have no idea what I’ll say tomorrow morning. I do know this: as happens every Sunday, I’ll learn more from them than they ever will from me. I’ll be far richer for having shared a simple hour with them. And as also happens every Sunday without fail, I’ll love them just a little more.
Small town heroes. My heroes.