My grandfather’s body shook, lying in the bed.
His son-in-law, my dad, took hold of his unsteady hands, and I stood by their side. Granddad was near that door that leads into eternity.
He had been in the tanks in World War II, an Australian solider.
Today I am under the overcast Midwestern USA sky, watching Obama’s speech and reading about this day they celebrate as Memorial Day.
I am reflecting about war, how to honor those who served in the armed forces for both of my home countries—the USA and Australia. How can I help my child to understand what this day is about? Remembering and mourning with the families who lost their loved ones during war.
And what they were fighting for? Words used in today’s speeches spoke of DEMOCRACY, FREEDOM, “protecting our loved ones” and “giving our children a better future”.
Looking into the agitated eyes of my grandfather, I wondered how much he had seen, how much the war was still going on deep inside his once independent, hard-working frame, now a fragile body. I was young yet I could sense heavy burdens through his eyes.
Contemplating, I saw a story that began in a bar downtown. Maybe this (never) happened. Stranger things have.
Len ordered a beer, his eyes fixed on the Indy car race flashing across the widescreen. Outside, a car backfired on Martin Luther King Jr Drive. Len jumped out of his seat, spilling a third of his beer. The bartender, Jesse, lent over with a towel to mop up the liquid, then passed him a fresh beer and said, “You ok, Len?”
“Yeah, it just took me back, you know.”
“I know, Len, I know.”
“You were there in World War II, too?”
“I was there in all of them.”
Len’s eyes widened, wondering how to respond to Jesse’s odd remark. He had only known the bartender a few months, having made the switch to this new tavern in town that had opened last spring, hearing that the wine and beer and grilled fish were amazing—which they were.
Len just looked at Jesse with a puzzled expression.
“Take a look at the screen, Len. Some things you gotta see to believe….”
Then, as Jesse flicked a switch, the widescreen seemed to engulf Len’s entire line of sight, the other customers were forgotten, the images jumping to life. Jesse pulled up a seat beside Len with a full glass of red, and the documentary cut to a young man that looked incredibly like Len. He was at a crossroad in northern France.
Len, recognizing himself, put down his beer, mouth agape and turned questioning eyes toward Jesse. Jesse just pointed to the screen.
Suddenly a line of enemy soldiers appeared from the woodlands and began firing. Len took cover and saw a few of his friends fall, writhing in pain, bloodstained to the grassy floor. Then Jesse was there in the film. He ran out to the men, staying low, holding the boys as they thought about their parents, their siblings, their girlfriends and fiancés, those dear ones they would never hold again.
The movie continued, and the Jesse figure ran to every one of the fallen soldiers, holding them close, talking to them as they lay there, some afraid, some overwhelmed, some just simply in shock from what had happened. They all seemed to relax when he lifted them into his arms.
Then Len, thinking he was either dreaming or had enjoyed one too many artisan beers that night, turned to Jesse and said, “Wait, if you are that guy everyone talks about in church, then at least it’s good to know you were on OUR side.”
Now Jesse looked puzzled and replied, “Keep watching.”
Len turned back and the camera lifted and zoomed into the enemy’s lines as the bullets were returned. The foreign language sounded strange at first, but then due to some miracle or just great video editing, the words became clear and understandable to Len. A man by the name of Claas was calling out to his friend who lay dead beside him. The words of heartfelt pain touched Len, and then to his shock and, yes, disappointment, he saw Jesse running to Claas’s friend. He lifted him up and he too relaxed as he looked into Jesse’s eyes.
Jesse lifted up soldier after soldier, fallen men from both sides. Holding them, crying with them as they cried for home, for a better land, for their children to be safe, for freedom to reign.
The movie ended. Len looked around and everything seemed normal again. The regular customers were chatting and watching the race, and Jesse was helping an elderly man light his cigar. Len turned to Jesse and said, “Hey Jesse, I just had the strangest,… um…‘thought’.”
Jesse smiled and said, “I know. I was there.”
Words & Photo by Jonathan McCallum