My good friend Ralph Rowand once told me something in college that made me look at him with a tilted head like a dog that’s been given kale. “Our generation got cheated out of a war.” said Ralph bemusedly. Once my head leveled back, I understood him to mean that the cheated part was the glory, the John Wayne and Sands of Iwo Jima stuff. Those of us who never served in combat often think just of the glory and flag waving valor dismissing the reality that we can never fully understand, the price paid for freedom. David Brooks writes about victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, “The victims of PTSD often feel morally tainted by their experiences, unable to recover confidence in their own goodness, trapped in a sort of spiritual solitary confinement, looking back at the rest of the world from beyond the barrier of what happened.”
Ralph, nevertheless, wanted in the battle. Which reminds me of the perseverance of my Dad who also missed out on military service, although he did play tailback for the Bluejacket High basketball team. His coach admonished him, “Get your tail back on the bench!” After enduring 26 consecutive losses, coach told him to get in the game after one of the starters fouled out. Terrel swished several late free throws to ice the victory and break the losing streak. I’ve heard Dad tell that story dozens of times and have always wondered what it was like to sit there for 26 consecutive losses, and then get carried off the court as the game winning hero.
My Dad tells another story which helps me reflect on heroes who are sometimes only honored after languishing on the bench for years. I hope those who have served understand the value of what they have done and that in the grand scheme of life, they are part of a tapestry of sacrifice that is bigger and more powerful than they can imagine.
But before I tell that story, let me tell you about JRR Tolkien, a soldier in World War I who became a writer to a large degree because of what he saw and felt and heard at the Battle of the Somme. His book, Tree and Leaf, contains a story about a man who could barely get a leaf out. The author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, wrote about a painter named Niggle, who spent his whole life trying to paint a very beautiful tree with snow-capped mountains and forests behind it. In spite of his efforts, when the Niggle dies he has finished painting only one leaf.
Tolkien’s story reminds me of the story my Dad often tells with a shaken voice like he was the redeemed one. An American soldier in Vietnam shot a North Viet Cong soldier who had lined up a South Vietnamese family with intent to execute them including their children. Many years later, he was playing golf in Bartlesville and he happened upon a couple of younger golfers. Since play was slow they decided to play together. The older man noticed the younger man stealing glances at him, like he knew him. After several holes the younger man looked the old soldier squarely in the eyes and said, “You saved my family, many years ago in Vietnam. I was a child then. You saved us. Thank you!”
What happened to the painter in Tolkien’s story? Disappointed that he only finished one leaf, he goes to his reward and sees something in the distance. As he approaches, he realizes that there is the completed tree he was trying to paint all along!
Whether its everyday life or a bloody battlefield, we often find ourselves disappointed, discouraged, even disillusioned, at how little we’re able to accomplish. We feel like there’s so much unfinished, so much still to do. The one leaf that we paint often goes together with leaves that others paint to create a beautiful tree. The tree wouldn’t be complete unless we did our part.
John Garth writes about Tolkien’s time spent on the battlefield in World War I.
In the ordinary soldier – an inspiration for Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings – he saw astonishing resilience and courage on a battlefield swept by machine guns. Autumn rain made it all a mire, with corpses afloat in shell holes.” John Garth, ‘Battle of the Somme: the ‘animal horror’ that inspired JRR Tolkien.’
Tolkien’s first dragons are surreal hybrids of beast and machine. They lumber against the elf-city of Gondolin, spouting fire and clanking, with orctroops hidden inside. This was in the first Middle-earth story, begun by 2nd Lieut JRR Tolkien in hospital straight after the Battle of the Somme, where Britain’s own secret weapon, the tank, had just been rolled out. War had caught him at 22, marking the end of the world as his generation knew it.
God bless the few, who have given so much, for so many.