Monday, July 24, 2017
Vale of Tears
There they sit, packed into what seems little more than a toothpaste tube, two long rows of GIs, helmets festooned with brush, faces blackened, each so loaded with equipment it would seem the jumps they were all about to take would be their last even if there were no machine gun fire. Band of Brothers does its best to put viewers there with those paratroopers, high up over Normandy, the night skies full of flack, all around them other C-47s getting hit, some going down.
It's June 6, 1944. Beneath them, the Normandy beach assault had begun. But up above, almost 7000 paratroopers aboard 432 C-47s sat, one beside the other, waiting for the signal to jump into hell. Here and there, one or two may have been thirty years old; but for the most part, they were kids who knew that night might well be their last on earth.
The farther we get from war, the more difficult it becomes to imagine, especially mammoth events like Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion at Normandy. Once in a while a movie comes along that helps us all imagine what it could have been like for our own kin to be there. By 1944 almost forty men from First Christian Reformed Church, Orange City, Iowa, my father-in-law among them, were either overseas or on their way, the contribution of one church in one small town.
Dad wasn't with the 101st or 82nd Airborne, but he crossed the English channel some time later with his own band of brothers, the motor pool, gear heads commissioned to trail the front wherever it led and keep its tanks and jeeps and troop trucks running. While he never came under fire, he was always close enough to the ravages of war to know the world he was in was unlike anything he'd ever see again or wish to in rural Iowa.
It seemed very strange last night to watch Band of Brothers, having sat at his side for most of the day after he'd suffered another spell of infections--they come frequently these days--put what life is still within him at significant risk. Things are going down now, as they have been for a long time for Second World War vets. Once upon a time we drove him and his wife to a motor pool reunion in Toledo, Ohio, where a bunch of a old men laughed and told old insider jokes when they weren't remembering the toll of buddies who went down in just the last year. That Toledo reunion was, they'd determined, the last; and it was twenty-some years ago.
Dad went to the hospital because the nurse at the home asked us if we'd take him, then called again a few moments later to let us know they'd called the ambulance because they'd determined our getting him out of his room would be pretty much impossible. So we went straight to the hospital, got there before the ambulance, and sat with him--he really wasn't aware we were there or even that he was--while the nurses and doctors had a look.
I was introduced to a new word yesterday--septik. Five years ago we were told that out here at the edge of town we couldn't connect to a sewer system; we'd need a septik tank and field. I've always been a townboy. Definitions were needed.
As they were yesterday. What that little vial of blood the nurse drew from Dad's arm indicated was that he was "septik." And what that meant was that a certain regimen of treatment--water and antibiotics--would be given by IV to fight bacteria that this time had seeped into his bloodstream and would have eventually taken him, if nothing had been done.
By the end of the day his color was back, he'd regained partial consciousness, and he could talk a bit with us. But yesterday's hospital experience was new for us and him, even though he doesn't understand it himself. It was new because for the first time we understood that, whether we like it or not, we have a weapon in our hands, a weapon we are likely to have to use, a decision that will have to be made eventually: whether to let him live or die.
By giving permission to bring him to the hospital, we were signalling we wanted him to go through at least one more fight, one more battle. What the doctors told us--and there were two--was that we needed to know that from here on in that decision would be ours alone.
At the end of the second episode of Band of Brothers, after a prolonged firefight, hard to watch, Maj. Richard D. Winters steps out alone into the night, a roster of Allied troops behind him, endless combat ahead of him; and he tells himself that someday--I wish I had memorized the line--he's going to get himself a place somewhere outside of town and live the rest of his life in peace.
I heard my father-in-law's own dreams in that line, a man who followed the front all the way to Berlin and lost a brother in World War II. I even heard something his wife, now deceased, a woman who lost a fiance that June 6, 1944, and, three years later, married an ex-GI who always wanted to farm.
Yesterday, I had quite enough of this vale of tears, of life and death, as did my wife, I'm sure, Dad's only daughter and only child.
And as did he, or so he's told us. He'd like to go where he knows there is peace. He's ready.