It was 1944.
My father’s company was battling the Germans in a field outside the small village of Moyenvic, France. In the confusion of war his squad got separated from their platoon. They were trying to make their way back when my father saw the single German soldier standing on the other side of the bridge. “My first thought was,” he later wrote, “was why did you have to be right here, right now?” He had no choice but to fire at him before he himself was killed. A sniper, he didn't miss.
The squad pressed on until they joined up with the battle. At some point a white hot piece of shrapnel slammed into my dad’s leg, shattering the tibia. He lay in the field the rest of the day, at one point dueling with a German sniper who finally gave up the battle. Just as my dad was preparing for a long night, he saw an American Jeep carrying wounded soldiers to an aid station and flagged it down.
One of his buddies was on the Jeep as well. He gave my father the news that their whole company was dead or missing. He asked if my dad knew anything about the dead German on the bridge, and for some reason my dad played dumb. Turns out when the others came upon his body he was holding a picture of his wife and small child.
“My best buddies were getting killed out there,” my father later wrote. “And the German at the bridge was no longer an enemy soldier. He was a young father with a young family. Rather that was what he had been. I pounded my head with the heel of my fist. A young medic hurried over.
‘Morphine, fellow? It will stop the pain.’
‘ 'No thanks,’ I said. ‘Morphine won’t help this pain.’”
It’s Memorial Day, 2022, the day we remember and give our inadequate thanks for those who gave their final measure of devotion. There is a terrible randomness to war. My father survived, coming home to court a girl and then marry her, to raise a family and have a long career, to hold great grandchildren on his knee. Some of his friends with whom he began that day did not. They are forever frozen as young men with Army caps perched jauntily on their heads as they smiled past whatever fear they held inside. They are names carved into granite.
Wars leave great, unfinished stories.
I think of the story that Andrew might have woven had he had the chance to live the fullness of his life. Some of you know Andrew because, like me, you watched him grow up. Some of you know of him because I’ve written of him before.
His story came to an abrupt end in October, 2005 when his vehicle hit a roadside IED. Andrew was killed instantly.
Here’s what the people who are a little quieter on this Memorial Day know. You lose a child like that, and there’s that terrible moment when the car that you want to keep going past your house stops in front of your house, when the somber people in uniform give you the news that you’d give every breath in your body not to hear.
Here’s what the people who are a little quieter on this Memorial Day know. The loss keeps coming around, never again with that somber, dreaded car but with graduation announcements, with seeing your kid’s friends court and get married and have children of their own and yes, you are genuinely happy for them but loss is there as well.
So many times I think of Andrew. He was contemplating becoming a fire fighter or an EMT when he got out of the Marines. I somehow always picture him as a firefighter. Andrew would be the one making the joke that broke the tension of a tough call, and he’d be the first to volunteer for the dangerous rescue. Maybe he’d even find a young woman who’d put up with his always-needing-tinkering car and who’d have a big enough heart for the warrior parts of Andrew that would have never made it completely home.
Because they never do.
I’m saddened that the world never got to see the story that was Andrew’s to spin.
I’m saddened by all of the stories left unwritten, and on some days I'm angry because of all of the ways this world didn’t get to be blessed by what these women and men would have done.
There are too many wars, and too many deaths. Some days I wish the entire world could unite in one keening wail of the pain that no morphine can touch.
Do you think that then we could stop adding so many names to this list?
*quotes are from The War Beyond My Foxhole by Joseph A. Haymes