Friday, November 11, 2016

Behind the parades & fireworks...

(Slight update of an earlier post; I think of this guy often, but especially on Veterans’ day.  His deeply-rooted faith became sight a little over a year ago.  I can’t wait to see that smile again.)

6/25/1950 - North Korea invades South Korea.  A small conflict in a rather remote corner of the world...

Meanwhile, at a junior college in MS, this handsome young man with blue eyes & a great smile was arriving from Choctaw County in SW Alabama to go to school, and to play football on a pretty good JC team.

I believe it was the following summer that the entire football team--that's the entire team!—were activated into the military.  (They were all in the Reserves; full scholarships didn’t really happen back then).  They volunteered their services to go take a stand in South Korea because their country thought that was worth doing.

The details of that conflict & the countries who participated in it's motivations are murky.  Which is OK, as this is not a geo-political analysis of that war.  Nor of any war.  Nor of war in general.  Today, 60+ years later, the Korean war has never officially ended.  There's a line of demarcation that's guarded on both sides, and official hostilities have been at a cease-fire for some decades now.

Back to the point of this entry: The young man from Choctaw County & his teammates scattered to various branches of the service & various training centers.  He trained to be a combat medic.  His training would unfortunately come in quite handy in the months to come in the combat-laden frozen wasteland that was much of the Korean peninsula, ca. the early 1950s.

He survived, thankfully.  (I say "thankfully" for reasons that will become clear shortly)  To his dying day, he was still a tough guy physically & emotionally; mentally, his mind began slipping gears during the last couple of years of his life.  Courage beyond what I can imagine, both during wartime and after coming home.  Worked building airplanes in Mobile, AL, before a hearing problem ended that job for him.  Married.  Had a couple of children.  When the hearing problem kicked into high gear, he moved his family back to Choctaw County.  He built the house they lived in on a pretty spot of land that he cleared off to raise cows & have a few horses for fun.  His youngest child "helped" him build it, since she wasn't in school yet.  Ever met a softie who's worked with cows & horses for much of his life?  Me neither; they don’t exist.  I recall going to feed the cows with him some 30 years ago.  I was in my 20s, he was in his 50s...he tossed a big 100-lb sack of feed over each shoulder & away he went.  I tried to toss one over one shoulder; it didn't go well, & I was actively lifting weights at the time.  As I say, he was a tough guy.

I knew him pretty well for the last 35 or so years of his life; 31 of those as his son-in-law, who married the younger daughter who helped him build the house.

She has the same gorgeous blue eyes as her Daddy, plus the same hard work ethic.  She loves the land like he does.  She is as close to a Daddy's girl as a tough cattleman/soldier will ever have.  This particular cattleman/soldier was just crazy about his grandchildren, who added a dimension of tenderness to him during his last 30 or so years.  They, in turn, dearly loved their "Papa."

All of that said to say this: it's Veterans’ Day, a day on which we honor our military, as we should on a daily basis in my opinion.  But my challenge to each of us is to take the time to ask questions along the lines of "so, what was it like?" and then shut up & listen.  Or perhaps a step back from that emotional brink would be just to say "thank you" to them. 

I listened to some tell their stories on the radio recently while driving home; at times, it was rather hard to see.  (Must've been rain or fog or something...or something...)  One of the radio stories was another guy who was in Korea & as squadron commander ordered his best friend from back home to go do some recon; several months later, the guy found his friend about to die in a Chinese P.O.W. camp.  He buried his friend just minutes later on a hillside there in North Korea.  Another guy was just back from Iraq a few years back, where he was at the proverbial end of the spear, doing necessary-but-regrettable things outside the wire at night with his unit.  Some jackass HS acquaintance said to him shortly after he returned, "So, you're like a certified baby-killer now, huh?  What's that like?"  (If "jackass" is offensive & not the right word, there are others that are more offensive and perhaps more appropriate that I considered using.)

Papa's Korea stories unfolded over several decades, in small bits & pieces.  It seems that once he had a grandson, they unfolded a bit more rapidly & freely.  They were buried deeply within his memory, locked away until that glorious day when the swords are hammered into plowshares & spears into pruning hooks, at which point the stories will no longer be needed.  But they did spill out every now & then.  Mostly around Christmas.  Especially if Christmas is a cold one.  

"I remember that Christmas we spent in the field in Korea..."

Usually a quick, short piece of a story, occasionally adorned with a picture or the worship bulletin from the Christmas Day service there.  Just little glimpses into the unspeakable horrors that we all (understandably) blow past on holidays like Veterans Day.  

"I remember going around from sleeping bag to sleeping bag in the morning & checking to see who was still alive & who had either frozen to death or suffocated when the snow covered their face"...

"See this little guy from the Phillipines in the picture?  I've seen him stack up North Koreans like rats using just his bayonet & knife"...

"I remember seeing Chinese troops line up across the valley from us & just walk toward our lines, getting mowed down by our fire.  They figured we'd run out of bullets before they ran out of soldiers”…

“I remember our unit’s machine gun barrel starting to bend due to excessive heat caused by shooting boxes of shells non-stop…”

I love the parades & the pageantry of Veterans Day.  I'm descended from a long line of patriotic types, in the best sense of the word.  And I married into that too.  As we shake hands with those who came back & have a moment of silence for those who didn't & as we celebrate victories they won...PLEASE take time to try to listen to them if they'll talk about it.  (I know many who won't; I certainly am not going to insist that they go back in their memories to the darkest days of their young lives!)  Just try to fathom what seeing & experiencing things like being in a front-line combat unit in Korea does to, say, a small-town boy from Choctaw County AL’s soul & psyche.

I close with this.  A pastor I know in small-town north MS told me that when the movie "Saving Private Ryan" came out, he had several of his salt-of-the-earth tough guy farmers with families & homes & such come to his office, & sit just weep about memories they had locked away, never sharing them with anyone.  Not even their brides of 50+ years.  Seeing "Saving Private Ryan" triggered those memories & brought them to the surface.  My pastor friend said, through his & my shared tears, one guy who's a deacon @ his church & a very quiet, gentle, hard-working farmer shared that every single Christmas, every birthday, & every family gathering of any kind brought clearly to mind the faces of a couple of young German soldiers he killed in Europe in late 1944 & early 1945.   The guy said it always bothered him greatly that those young Germans would never experience marriage or family or owning a home or children or grandchildren...

That, ladies & gents, is so very often what's behind the sober salutes & pinning on of the medals & attendance at the squadron reunions & the wearing of hats, t-shirts, and jackets & the faraway stares today.

Thank you, Father, that you raise up men & women who put on a uniform & take an oath & undergo tough training in order to be willing to ship out to places like Normandy...North Africa...Saipan...Iwo Jima...Korea...Viet Nam...Afghanistan...Iraq...Thank you for the freedoms we have, which have NEVER been free.

Thank you especially that you've promised that day...that GLORIOUS, AMAZING day...when, in the words of Scripture, “they will all hammer their swords into plowshares & their spears into pruning hooks & they shall remember war no more.”  Until then, may we as a nation honor them and be as thankful for them collectively & individually as I am for Jimmy Mixon, "Papa" to me & my children.  Grant them all peace, Father.

Gratefully & humbly,