Friday, February 24, 2017
Did he have a clue what he was fighting for? We'll never know, I guess. I'm sure he was sent off with some kind of parade, replete with patriotic fervor. Likely as not, flags were waving--after all, now that the Yanks were coming, the Krauts turn pale and run.
It was 1918, but right before being shipped across, he came down with a strain of pneumonia that put him in the base infirmary rather than on the troop ship. He missed his company's departure and landing, but came along a month or so later.
If he hadn't, if he hadn't been taken down by illness, would that hiccup have meant he'd survive? Maybe with a month of battle behind him, he wouldn't have done what he did on his last day. Maybe he wouldn't have been exactly where he was when he was. Certainly on that particular day some nameless German soldier wouldn't have tossed the grenade he did, just at the moment this unlettered doughboy was running across a gully not far from the Vesle River in France.
What I'm saying is, the exact constellation of the events at the moment of his death could not have been repeated. This soldier, my grandmother's only brother, may well have survived had he not come down with a nasty cold, had he gone left instead of right when he came to a cedar in his way, had he stopped momentarily to relieve himself, had any of a thousand things happened.
But none did, so that's not the story.
That kind of mental and emotional finagling comes with every tragedy we suffer, doesn't it? If only he'd have boarded that troop ship when he should have, he would have altered what seemed the preordained order of events and messed up the plot of his death. You know, "if only she'd taken her normal route home, there would have been no accident."
But she didn't.
And neither did my great uncle. The facts are etched on stone. He went to bed in the infirmary because some flu bug laid him up; he missed the ship; he went over later, rejoined his outfit; he spent no more than a couple of days at the front; and he was killed by an enemy grenade he likely never saw. He was dead instantly--so guessed the man who found his body and knew him.
The whole thing seems jerry-rigged, doesn't it? The whole thing seems predestined.
My father-in-law says he remembers being parked out in the country somewhere on some night long ago, a couple of friends along, mid-summer, sometime before he left for basic training during World War II. He and his friends tried to run through what a catechism question really meant, tried to find an explanation, tried, he said, to understand how life worked. Are we free agents? Do we make our own choices? Do we control our fate?
Or does fate? Or does someone else spin the dice for us? For a son of Dutch Calvinism, that question was carried along by a particular theological formulary: are we predestined? Is all of what are and will be already mapped out? Are we subject to powers so much greater than ourselves that our freedom is only an illusion.
Are we foreordained?
My great uncle died in August of 1918, 99 years ago, soon to be a century. In November of 1618, in the city of Dordtrecht, the Netherlands, a host of Dutch Calvinists, determined to answer that question in its theological formulation. What resulted--after more than year of wrangling and even some fisticuffs--was a formulary titled "The Canons of Dort," 499 years ago.
There has to be a story there, and it's ours, all of ours really.