~standing in gratitude and reverence for the few
who suffered great loneliness and loss
to secure the future and well-being of many,
including the unknown generations to come
who must live in a way that gives those sacrifices
the honor they deserve~
In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls. This is the great reward of service. To live, far out and on, in the life of others;
this is the mystery of the Christ, –to give life’s best for such high sake
that it shall be found again unto life eternal. ~Major-General Joshua Chamberlain at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 1889
I hear the mountain birds The sound of rivers singing A song I’ve often heard It flows through me now So clear and so loud I stand where I am And forever I’m dreaming of home I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home
It’s carried in the air The breeze of early morning I see the land so fair My heart opens wide There’s sadness inside I stand where I am And forever I’m dreaming of home I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home
This is no foreign sky I see no foreign light But far away am I From some peaceful land I’m longing to stand A hand in my hand …forever I’m dreaming of home I feel so alone, I’m dreaming of home
~Lori Barth and Philippe Rombi “I’m Dreaming of Home”
“Comrade General, instead of a decoration, could I go home to see my mother?”
I was sixteen, taking second year high school Russian during the Cold War, partly for the challenge, but mostly to understand better who our “enemy” was. Our teacher assigned us unusual homework one weekend: watch the 1959 Russian movie “Ballad of a Soldier” being broadcast on PBS in 1970. It had English subtitles, but the point of the assignment was to experience the sounds and inflections of native Russian speakers. Although the movie was a fictional story of a Russian soldier’s brief leave from the front during WWII, it complemented a concurrent assignment in our World History class, reading All Quiet on the Western Front. The unforgettable juxtaposition of these two works of art helped me appreciate, in the midst of the nightly news from Vietnam, the terrible cost of war.
Recently, some forty seven years later, I watched this movie again. The tale is a classic “returning home from war” saga with the twist that young Alyosha is only on a brief leave granted by a compassionate general rewarding the front line soldier for an extraordinary act of bravery. Alyosha asks only to return to his home village to fix the leaking roof of his mother’s home. Given the extraordinary difficulties of war time travel in an economically struggling country, as well as the challenges and people he ends up meeting along the way, his time home ends up being only a few precious minutes before he has to turn around and return to the front. He only has enough time to hug his mother, and say goodbye one last time, never to return again.
Although the story focuses on a son’s determination to get home to his mother, it also allows a view of war’s permanent damage to bodies and minds, as well as the toll of war time separation on relationships. There seems little sense of hopeful future for the characters in this story, so the immediacy of what they experience takes on greater significance.
Alyosha meets a young woman on the train and their evolving connection offers a glimpse of a potential love that can transcend the ugliness of war. They part not even knowing how to find each other again, after having spent precious few hours in conversation. Acknowledging that lack of future hope is the most painful of all; there is no ability to make plans with confidence, no sense of a long life stretching ahead like the dusty road leading from his village that reaches endless to the horizon.
I remember sitting in my childhood home, watching this movie as a teenager with so little life experience at that point. Tears streamed down my face, touched forever by the tender story of a man made too old by war and hardship for his young years and his simple desire to once again hug his mother. This Russian soldier did not feel like an enemy to me. This felt like someone I could easily love and hold on to–as a brother, someday as a cherished husband, eventually as a precious son. Years later I would identify with the role of the mother with moistening eyes, watching my children leave our home, heading down that long endless road to their own uncertain futures.
On this day — May 26 — what would have been my mother’s 98th birthday — I have the simple desire to once again hug my mother and feel her tender love. The wrenching moments of saying goodbye as I left home remain my precious bittersweet memories of her, even as my own road now grows shorter.
There will come a time, in our forever home, when there will be no more goodbyes, I’ll never have to let go of her and neither of us will walk away to an uncertain future.
Reflecting on, and with respect for, the courage shown by Tanzanian park rangers and my kidnapped research colleagues on this unforgettable day 43 years ago — I’m reposting this again as part of my Gombe saga from when I worked as a student research assistant for Jane Goodall in western Tanzania in 1975.
At first glance, Gombe National Park in Tanzania felt like paradise—a serene piece of the earth filled with exotic and fascinating wildlife, an abundance of fish and fruit to eat, and the rich unfamiliar sounds and smells of the tropical jungle. It was a façade. It was surrounded by the turmoil and upheaval of political rebellion and insurgencies in its neighboring countries, inflamed even more by the fall of Saigon in Vietnam a month previously due to the earlier pull out of the Americans from that long and tragic war.
Only a few miles north of our research station in Gombe National Park in western Tanzania, there had been years of civil war in the small land locked country of Burundi. When the wind was just right, we could hear gunfire and explosions echoing over the valleys that separated us. Escaping refugees would sometimes stop for food on their way to villages in Tanzania to the south, seeking safe haven in one of the poorest countries in the world, only a decade into its own experiment with socialism, Ujamaa.
There was also word of ongoing military rebellion against the dictatorship of President Mobutu in the mountainous country of Zaire twelve miles west across Lake Tanganyika.
Morning comes early for field studies of wildlife, as the research day must start before the chimpanzee and baboon subjects wake up and begin to stir. Before midnight, while we slept soundly in our metal huts scattered up the mountainside, a group of armed soldiers arrived by boats to the shore of Gombe National Park.
Storming the beach huts housing two unarmed Gombe park rangers and their families, the soldiers seized one and demanded to be told where the researchers were. The ranger refused to provide information and was severely beaten about the head and face by the butts of the rifles carried by the invaders. The armed soldiers then divided into smaller groups and headed up the trails leading to the huts, coming upon four sleeping student researchers, tying them up, taking them hostage, forcing them into boats and taking them across the lake back to Zaire.
Asleep farther up the mountain, we were wakened by other researchers who were fleeing, hearing the commotion. No one really understood what was happening down lower on the mountain. There were shouts and screams, and gun shots had been heard. Had someone been injured or killed? There was no choice but to run and hide deep in the bush at a predetermined gathering spot until an “all clear” signal was given by the rangers.
We hurried along barely familiar trails in the black of the jungle night, using no flashlights, our hearts beating hard, knowing we had no defense available to us other than the cover of darkness.
That was the longest wait for morning of my life, sitting alongside Jane holding her son Grub. A hand full of other students had also made their way to the hiding spot, none of us knowing what to think, say or do. We could only barely see each other’s faces in the darkness and were too frightened to make any sounds. We carried no weapons, and there was no way to communicate with the outside world. We had no idea how many of us may be missing, or possibly dead.
Jane held Grub in her arms, endeavoring in vain to keep him quiet, but his eight year old imagination was ignited by the events that had just unfolded.
“Will they kidnap me, Jane? Will they come for me? Where will they take us? Will they shoot us dead?”
Jane, her face hidden by her blonde hair loose about her shoulders, sat rocking him, cradling him. “Shhh, shhh, we don’t want them to find us. We’re safe staying right here. Everything will be fine in the morning. No one will take you from me.”
Grub began to sob silently into her shoulder.
When the morning of May 20 dawned, the park rangers located us, and pieced together the events as best they could–the soldiers were Zairean rebels living in remote mountains, fighting an insurgency against the Zaire government. Seeking funds for their cause, they saw a kidnapping of Americans and Europeans as a way to raise quick funds and world publicity and sympathy. Four of our friends/coworkers were missing, the camp was ransacked and the rangers beaten but with no life threatening injuries. There was no way to remain safe at the Park, and our colleagues needed whatever help we could offer for their rescue.
We were able to send a messenger to a nearby fishing village, and a radio call was sent out to the small town of Kigoma, then relayed to Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi. Help arrived within a few hours, when a United Nations boat monitoring the civil war activities in Burundi pulled off shore near our camp. We were told we needed to evacuate Gombe that day, and would be taken to Kigoma, and then flown by bush pilot to Nairobi, Kenya to cooperate in the investigation of the kidnapping.
In Nairobi, at the US Embassy, I met CIA agents who viewed our wild primate studies with suspicion. Each of us were grilled individually as to our political beliefs, our activities at the camp and whether we may be somehow involved in subversive actions against the Zaire or Tanzanian governments. We were dumbfounded that our own countrymen would be so skeptical about our motives for being in Africa. It became clear our own government would be no help in resolving the kidnapping and bringing our friends home to safety. The agents did not shed any light on whether they knew our friends were alive or dead.
We were then hustled into a press conference where we were interviewed for television and print media by the worldwide news agencies, and my parents saw me on the CBS evening news before they actually heard my voice over the phone. I flew back to Stanford the next day, spending 24 hours on a plane that made six stops up the coast of West Africa on its way back west, to tell what I knew to Stanford President Lyman and other administration officials as they prepared a plan to locate and free the students. I then returned home to Washington state to await any news that came too slowly from a place so far away that I remain astonished to this day that I was ever there at all.
It took over three months, private negotiations and ransom money to free all four of our friends back to safety. They remain close to each other and the remarkable man who helped free them, Dr. David Hamburg. We have had several reunions together over the years to remember those days of living in a place that at one time seemed like paradise.
Brief, on a flying night, From the shaken tower, A flock of bells take flight, And go with the hour.
Like birds from the cote to the gales, Abrupt—O hark! A fleet of bells set sails, And go to the dark.
Sudden the cold airs swing. Alone, aloud, A verse of bells takes wing And flies with the cloud. ~Alice Christiana Thompson Meynell – “Chimes” from more Collected Poems
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky, The flying cloud, the frosty light: The year is dying in the night; Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new, Ring, happy bells, across the snow: The year is going, let him go; Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind For those that here we see no more; Ring out the feud of rich and poor, Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause, And ancient forms of party strife; Ring in the nobler modes of life, With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin, The faithless coldness of the times; Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes, But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood, The civic slander and the spite; Ring in the love of truth and right, Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease; Ring out the narrowing lust of gold; Ring out the thousand wars of old, Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free, The larger heart, the kindlier hand; Ring out the darkness of the land, Ring in the Christ that is to be.
~Lord Alfred Tennyson
I know there are still communities where the New Year begins at midnight with church bells ringing, just as in days of old.
Here in the frontier of the rural Pacific Northwest, all we can hear from our farm are gun shots, bottle rockets and (what sounds like) explosions of cannon fire.
So much for larger hearts and kindlier hands.
Even without being able to hear wild bells ringing out the old and ringing in the new, let us begin with harmony and manners and care for our neighbors, abandoning a thousand years of war to find a thousand years of peace.
Let the darkness make room for the Light that was and is and will ever be.
The snow is melting and the village is flooded with children. ~Kobayashi Issa (translated by Robert Haas)
A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more. Matthew 2:18 and Jeremiah 31:15
We think of him as safe beneath the steeple, Or cosy in a crib beside the font, But he is with a million displaced people| On the long road of weariness and want. For even as we sing our final carol His family is up and on that road, Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel, Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,| The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power, And death squads spread their curse across the world. But every Herod dies, and comes alone To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.
~Malcolm Guite from Waiting on the Word
And the slaughter of innocents and weary road for refugees continues unabated- In observance of The Feast Day of the Holy Innocents:
There is no consolation for the families of those lost:
Their arms ache with emptiness tonight,
beds and pillows lie cold and unused,
blankets and cuddlies await all night hugs
that never come again.
There can be no consolation;
only mourning and great weeping,
sobbing that wrings dry
every human cell,
leaving dust behind,
dust, only dust
which is beginning
He came to us
for times such as this,
the dust of woman and
the breath of Spirit,
God who bent down to
lie in manger dust,
walk on roads of dust,
die and be laid to rest as dust
in order to conquer
such evil as this
that could displace masses
and massacre innocents.
He became dust to be
He began a mere speck in a womb
so often washed away from life
His heart beat
breathing each breath
until a fearful fallen world
and our breath
He shines through
the shadows of death
to guide our stumbling uncertain feet.
His tender mercies flow freely
when there is no consolation
when there is no comfort.
He hears our cries
as He cried too.
He knows our tears
as He wept too.
He knows our mourning
as He mourned too.
He knows our dying
as He died too.
as this happened.
Evil comes not from God
yet humankind embraces it.
Sin is a choice
we made from the beginning,
a choice we continue to make.
Only God can glue together
what evil has shattered.
He just asks us to hand Him
the pieces of our broken hearts.
We will know His peace
when He comes
to bring us home,
our tears will finally be dried,
our cells no longer
never only dust
as we are glued together
by the breath of God
the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. Luke 1: 78-79
In Flanders fields. ~Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae “In Flanders Fields”
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them. ~Lawrence Binyonfrom “For the Fallen” (1914)
Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ~ G.K. Chesterton
November pierces with its bleak remembrance Of all the bitterness and waste of war. Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for. Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers, And all the restless rumour of new wars, The shells are falling all around our vespers, No moment is unscarred, there is no pause, In every instant bloodied innocence Falls to the weary earth ,and whilst we stand Quiescence ends again in acquiescence, And Abel’s blood still cries in every land One silence only might redeem that blood Only the silence of a dying God. ~Malcolm Guite “Silence”
When you go home tell them of us and say – “For your tomorrow we gave our today” ~John Maxwell Edmonds from “The Kohima Epitaph”
To our U.S. veterans–with deep appreciation and gratitude–for the freedoms you have defended on behalf of us all:
My father was one of the fortunate ones who came home, returning to a quiet farm life after three years serving in the Pacific with the Marines Corp from 1942 to 1945. Hundreds of thousands of his colleagues didn’t come home, dying on beaches and battlefields. Tens of thousands more came home forever marked, through physical or psychological injury, by the experience of war.
No matter how one views subsequent wars that our nation has fought and currently is fighting, we must support and care for the men and women who have made the commitment to be on the front line for freedom’s sake and for our sake.
I’m unsure why the United States does not call November 11 Remembrance Day as the Commonwealth nations did 99 years ago at the Armistice. This is a day that demands much more than the more passive name Veterans’ Day represents.
This day calls all citizens who appreciate their freedoms to stop what they are doing and disrupt the routine rhythm of their lives. We are to remember in humble thankfulness the generations of military veterans who sacrificed time, resources, sometimes health and well being, and too often their lives in answering the call to defend their countries.
Remembrance means never forgetting what it costs to defend freedom. It means acknowledging the millions who have given of themselves and continue to do so on our behalf. It means never ceasing to care. It means a commitment to provide resources needed for the military to remain strong and supported. It means unending prayers for safe return home to family. It means we hold these men and women close in our hearts, always teaching the next generation about the sacrifices they made.
Most of all, it means being willing ourselves to become the sacrifice when called.
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow…
So, when old hopes that earth was bettering slowly
Were dead and damned, there sounded ‘War is done!’
One morrow. Said the bereft, and meek, and lowly,
‘Will men some day be given to grace? yea, wholly,
And in good sooth, as our dreams used to run?’
Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky;
Some could, some could not, shake off misery: ~Thomas Hardy from “And There Was a Great Calm” (On the Signing of the Armistice, 11 Nov. 1918)
My parents Henry and Elna Polis on their wedding day,
Dec. 24, 1942, Quantico, Virginia
He shipped out to the South Pacific front one week later,
not to return until June 1945
Sometimes, as a child, when I was bored, I’d grab a step ladder, pull it into our hallway, climb half way up and carefully lift the plywood hatch that was the portal to our unlit attic. It took some effort to climb up into the attic from the ladder, juggling a flashlight at the same time, but once seated safely on the beams above our ceiling, being careful not to put my foot through the carpet of insulation, I could explore what was stowed and normally inaccessible to me.
All the usual attic-type things were put up there: Christmas ornaments and lights, baby cribs and high chairs, lamps and toys no longer used. Secrets to my parents’ past were stored away there too. It was difficult imagining them as young children growing up on opposite sides of the state of Washington, in very different circumstances, or as attractive college students who met at a dance, or as young marrieds unencumbered by the daily responsibilities of a family. The attic held those images and memories like a three dimensional photo album.
My father’s dark green Marine Corps cargo trunk was up there, the one that followed him from Officer Training in Quantico, Virginia, to beach and mountain battles on Tarawa, Tinian and Saipan in the South Pacific, and three years later back home again. It had his name and rank stenciled on the side in dark black lettering. The buckles were stiff but could be opened with effort, and in the dark attic, there was always the thrill of unlatching the lid, and shining the flashlight across the contents. His Marine Corps dress uniform lay inside underneath his stiff brimmed cap. There were books about protocol, and a photo album which contained pictures of “his men” that he led in his battalion, and the collection of photos my mother sent of herself as she worked as a high school teacher back home.
Most fascinating was a folded Japanese flag inside a small drawstring bag, made of thin white see-through cloth with the bold red sun in the middle. Surrounding the red sun were the delicate inked characters of many Japanese hands as if painted by artists, each wishing a soldier well in his fight for the empire. Yet there it was, a symbol of that soldier’s demise, itself buried in an American attic, being gently and curiously held by an American daughter of a Marine Corps captain. It would occur to me in the 1960s that some of the people who wrote on this flag might still be living, and certainly members of the soldier’s family would still be living. I asked my father once about how he obtained the flag, and he, protecting me and himself, waved me away, saying he couldn’t remember. I know better now. He knew but could not possibly tell me the truth.
These flags, charms of good luck for the departing Japanese soldier as he left his neighborhood or village for war, are called Hinomaru Yosegaki (日の丸寄せ書き). Tens of thousands of these flags came home with American soldiers; it is clear they were not the talisman hoped for. A few of these flags are now finding their way back to their home country, to the original villages, to descendants of the lost soldiers. My brother, who now has the flag, has returned it as well to its rightful owners.
Seventy some years ago doesn’t seem that long, a mere drop in the river of time. There is more than mere mementos that have flowed from the broken dam of WWII, flooding subsequent generations of Americans, Japanese, Europeans with memories that are now lost as the oldest surviving soldiers in their 90’s pass, hundreds of them daily, taking their stories of pain and loss and heroism with them. My father could never talk with a person of Asian descent, Japanese or not, without stiffening his spine and a grim set to his jaw. He never could be at ease or turn his back. As a child, I saw and felt this from him, but heard little from his mouth.
When he was twenty two years old, pressed flat against the rocks of Tarawa, trying to melt into the ground to become invisible to the bullets whizzing overhead, he could not have conceived that sixty five years later his twenty two year old grandson would disembark from a jumbo jet at Narita in Tokyo, making his way to an international school in that city to teach Japanese children. My father would have been shocked that his grandson would settle happily into a culture so foreign, so seemingly threatening, so apparently abhorrent. Yet this irony is the direct result of the horrors of that too-long horrible bloody war of devastation: Americans and Japanese, despite so many differences, have become the strongest of allies, happily exchanging the grandchildren of those bitterly warring soldiers back and forth across the Pacific. I care for Japanese exchange students daily in my University clinic, peering intently into their open faces and never once have seen the enemy that my father knew.
More than seventy years later, my son still teaches, with deep admiration and appreciation for each of his students, those grandchildren and greatgrandchildren of the soldiers my father hated and likely killed. Not only does my son teach, but he married a granddaughter of those my father fought. Their daughter is the perfect amalgam of once warring, yet now peaceful, cultures; symbol of blended and blending peoples overcoming the hatred of past generations.
In coming to the land of the red sun, in coming full circle, my father’s descendant, the teacher and missionary, redeems my father, the warrior.
It is, on this Remembrance Day, as it was meant to be.