A Time for Thanksgiving —and reflection

I cannot say that Thanksgiving is a uniquely American experience; I have read stories of Spanish conquistadors offering thanks in the Americas as early as the mid-1500s, but maybe “ownership” isn’t really the issue at all.  Our first official recognition of Thanksgiving was issued by proclamation by the Second Continental Congress in 1777 at a time when the future of the American colonies was still very much in doubt.  Philadelphia, then our national capital, was then occupied by British forces.  In spite of this, Americans offered prayers of thanks to God for all His blessings —they prayed also for success in battle.  The war didn’t progress very well for the Americans over the first few years; offering thanks disappeared until reintroduced by James Madison during our second war in 1814.  Then we prayed for the protection of our new union —and for the wisdom to maintain it.

Thanksgiving became official and permanent during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, who in 1863 issued his own proclamation.  It was written in the context of our great civil upheaval; we prayed for reunification of a badly torn nation.

Nationally, thanksgiving celebrations have changed over generations, but it may also be fair to say that thanksgiving changes over the course of our lives.  The Thanksgiving holiday we experienced as children, sitting around tables laden with more food than we could possibly eat, is not the same as when we were sitting at similar tables as mid-life adults.

This is especially true among those who experienced thanksgiving away from home while engaged in combat.  After such experiences as these, pick any war, the holiday is never again quite the same.  Among our Marines and soldiers, the sweltering jungles of the South and Central Pacific while facing the fanatical Japanese stood in stark contrast with the bitter cold of the Korean peninsula.  In the latter case, some of our troops were provided with a hot, freshly roasted turkey with all the trimmings, but that was just moments before the 13 Chinese infantry divisions launched a massive assault against forward elements of the US 4th Infantry Division and 1st Marine Division at the Chosin Reservoir and along the entire front of the Eighth US Army in the west.  It involved some of the fiercest fighting of the entire Korean War —it was a Thanksgiving Day that thousands of men would not survive; that thousands more would never forget.

Only a few years later, our troops returned to jungle warfare —this time in Vietnam, where once more the Thanksgiving holiday became just another day “in the suck.”  In these circumstances, the memories of earlier festivities, of happier times, are best locked away, along with feelings of loneliness.  The North Vietnamese guards never hesitated to use isolation to enhance despair among our troops who had become prisoners of war.

The engagement in hostile conflict has become more or less constant for the United States, although I suspect that this is more reflects the incompetence of our politicians than it is upon who we are as a people  —yet, we continue to send our troops in harm’s way, and every Thanksgiving Day for far too many years, our young men and women become separated from their families and spend the day in lonely isolation from those who mean the most to them.  At home, families pray for the safe return of their children, husbands, wives, brothers and sisters.

Perhaps it is time to stop sending our troops into hostile areas when there is no clear national interest in doing so …

 

A bucket of shrimp

They say old folks do strange things. At least, I think that is what young people say about us when they talk about us at all —which isn’t all that often. I think this is because we old folks are a bother. I think this must explain why younger people want to place us in nursing homes.

In any case, this story unfolded every Friday evening, almost without fail, when the sun resembled a giant orange and was starting to dip into the wide blue ocean.

Seagull Feeding 001Old Ed would come strolling along the beach to his favorite pier.  Clutched in his bony hand was a bucket of shrimp.  Ed walked out to the end of the pier, where it seemed he almost had the world to himself.  The glow of the sun was a golden bronze; except for a few joggers on the beach, everyone had gone.  Standing at the end of the pier, Ed stood alone with his thoughts —and his bucket of shrimp.

It was not long before Ed was no longer alone.  Up in the sky a thousand white dots came screeching and squawking, winging their way toward that lanky frame standing there on the end of the pier.  Dozens of seagulls enveloped him, their wings fluttering and flapping wildly.  Ed stood calmly tossing shrimp to the hungry birds.  As he fed the birds, if you listened closely, you could hear him say, “Thank you. Thank you.”

The bucket was empty in a few short minutes, but Ed did not immediately leave; he stood there lost in thought, as if transported to another time and place.

When Ed finally turned around for his walk back to the beach, a few of the birds would hop along behind him.  Old Ed then quietly made his way down to the end of the beach and onward home.

If you were sitting there on the pier with your fishing line in the water, Ed might seem like ‘a funny old duck, or to onlookers, just another old codger lost in his own weird world. Imagine, feeding the seagulls with a bucket full of shrimp.

Eddie RickenbackerTo casual observers, rituals such as this can look very strange. They can seem altogether unimportant —perhaps even nonsensical. Most people would probably write Old Ed off, down there in Florida —and that would be too bad. They would have done well to know him better.

His full name was Edward Vernon Rickenbacker. In World War I, he won the Medal of Honor, eight distinguished service crosses, the French Legion of Honour, and three awards of the Croix de Guerre. He was America’s first fighter ace, with 26 victories. After the war, he started an automobile company. He purchased and operated the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In the 1930s, he clashed with Franklin D. Roosevelt —he thought Roosevelt was a socialist, and bad for America. It turns out he was right about that.  Oh, and he also founded Eastern Airlines.

During World War II, Rickenbacker supported the war effort as a civilian. In 1942, he toured training bases and offered suggestions about training, air operations, and equipment.  In October 1942, President Roosevelt sent him on a mission across the Pacific. After leaving Honolulu in a B-17D Flying Fortress, the aircraft drifted off course and had to ditch into the sea.  Miraculously, although suffering injuries, all of the men survived the initial crash.  They crawled out of the plane, and climbed into a life raft.

Rickenbacker and the crew floated for days on the rough waters of the Pacific.   They fought the sun.  They fought sharks.  Most of all, they fought hunger and thirst.  After three days, they ran out of food and water.  They were hundreds of miles from land, and no one knew where they went down, or even if they were still alive.  The men needed a miracle.

On the eighth day at sea, the men held a simple devotional service and prayed for that miracle.  They tried to nap in order to conserve energy.  Eddie leaned back and pulled his military cap over his nose to snooze.  All he could hear was the slap of the waves against the raft.

Suddenly, Eddie felt something land on the top of his cap.  It was a seagull!

Old Ed would later describe how he sat perfectly still, planning his next move. With a flash of his hand and a squawk from the gull, he managed to grab it and wring its neck.  He tore the feathers off, and he and his starving crew made a meal of it —actually, a small meal for eight men.  Then they used the bird’s intestines for bait.  With it, they caught fish, which gave them food and more bait . . . and the cycle continued.  With that simple survival technique, they were able to endure the severities of the sea until found and rescued off the island of Tuvalu after 24 days at sea.

Eddie Rickenbacker lived many years beyond that ordeal, but he never forgot the sacrifice of that first life-saving seagull. He never stopped saying, “Thank you” for that miracle. That is why almost every Friday night he would walk to the end of the pier with a bucket full of shrimp and a heart full of gratitude.

Odd old duck? I don’t think so …

Armistice Day

Today is Veterans Day —an annual observance intended to honor military veterans. It includes all persons who served in the Armed Forces of the United States.

Originally, the observance was titled Armistice Day (also called by some Remembrance Day). It marked the end of World War I, which ended at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month in 1918.

Today, other allied nations continue to observe this momentous occasion —in the UK, everyone stops for a two-minute period of silence at the eleventh hour.  They do this out of respect, and to reflect on the sacrifices made during the war.  These sacrifices, by the way, were not only made by brave young men.  They were also made by mothers and fathers, wives and sweethearts, and by the children left with only one remaining parent.

We don’t see that kind of reflection here in America, and herein lies my issue, because  I think our failure to remember the sacrifices of our troops and their allied brothers is a travesty of the first order.  Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day in 1954. Combat service during the very bloody First World War is not equivalent of serving in uniform during periods of tranquility.  I think we owe it to the memory of these fallen to make the distinction between serving in combat, and service in war time.

I would urge our government to return 11 November to a day that remembers and honors World War I Veterans; let’s find another day to acknowledge the service of honorably discharged or retired Americans who served their country, voluntarily or not, at a later time.

As for the sacrifices of World War I …

Hat tip for visual: My good friend Pablo.

The Honor of Our Corps

by Robert A. Hall

Marine Corps Seal

When the beer, it flows like water,

And the talk, it turns to war,

Then we speak of absent comrades

And the Honor of our Corps.

Of the fights in distant places
,

And the friends who are no more,

Dying faithful to the nation
,

And the Honor of our Corps.

Though our bones are growing brittle,

And our eyes are growing poor,

Still our hearts are young and valiant
,

For the Honor of our Corps.

Should the Eagle, Globe and Anchor
,

Call us to the field once more,

We would muster at the summons
,

For the Honor of our Corps.

When the years have told our story,

And we close the final door,

We will pass to you for keeping

Bright the Honor of our Corps.

Will you take the awesome burden?

Will you face the fire of war?

Will you proudly bear the title

For the Honor of our Corps?