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Brookfield Basics

A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.

Our Last Spartan

"Go tell the Spartans, those that passeth by;

That here, obedient to their laws, we lie".


So the Greek poet Simonides immortalized the Spartan warriors who defended their country against the Persian invader, Xerxes.  They did it because it was what they were raised to do, and because there were things in life they considered worth fighting and dying for. 


This September my father-in-law died; he was the last Veteran in our family, having already lost my own father and two uncles.  Andy was a member of George Patton's Third Army, and participated in its epic drive across Europe in 1944-45. 


We have again arrived at the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month", the words of Winston Churchill which marked the timing of the Armistice ending World War One.  His view of war was not just that of a towering statesman, but of one who fought in the troglodytic trenches of that awful conflict. 


We all pass by them - don't we?  In airports, in football stadiums, at civic events.  We see them in their uniforms, but it is not their garb that commands our attention.  Rather, it is their bearing of quiet strength and dignity.  I will never forget my father-in-law's funeral, when the 25th American Legion Post marched in to honor their fallen comrade.  Though their steps were short and unsteady, their collective gaze was firm and steely, intent upon the task of honoring their fallen comrade. They marched in, presented colors, and played the achingly evocative, Taps.  I listened, thinking of Andy as I watched  our two children, the salt of their emerging awareness mixing with their tears.   


November 11th was first known as Armistice Day, was changed to Veterans Day, and established as a National Holiday in the immediate aftermath of World War Two.  How does one adequately capture its meaning or significance?  How does one sufficiently honor the fallen, and those who currently serve?  I can only do so via the twin acts of remembrance and reflection.  Half-ghosted images of the past, impressions so fine they are woven into the fabric our collective national consciousness.............


I think of my Dad and his two brothers who all served in World War Two - a sailor, infantryman, and pilot.  Raised just up the road in Kohler, as America was awakening from its isolationist slumber, they left the only town they had ever seen to fight against Hirohito, Mussolini, and Hitler.  And I think of my father in-law, raised on a farm in rural Michigan, trudging through the snows of Belgium and serving under the ivory-pistolled Patton.  


I think of the riveting scenes of Spielberg's masterpiece Saving Private Ryan, the aging veteran collapsed to his knees in the Normandy cemetery, overcome by the assualt waves of his emotion. The enormous, over-arching American Flags languidly lufting in the Channel breezes, keeping silent but faithful vigil over those who lay below.


I think of Douglas MacArthur, marching and drilling the Long Gray Line of Cadets on the plains of West Point.  And the soaring prose of his farewell to the Corps of Cadets, his resonant voice ringing out, "Duty - Honor - Country".


I again think of Winston Churchill, standing alone and staring into the maw of Nazi invincibility, jutting out that famous jaw and growling, "We shall never surrender".


I think of William Manchester, historian, biographer, and United States Marine, a writer so gifted he has brought me to tears as he tried to convey the undying strength of the bonds which exist between fighting men and women; bonds forged upon the anvil of mortal combat.


But more than any one thing, I recall the British inantryman Siegfried Sassoon, who wrote of his World War One experiences in the masterful work, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.  I think of his heart-breaking line, "Thank God that you shall never know, the hell where youth and laughter go". 


And I think of him staring into the avalanche of steel and fire that was No Man's Land, summoning the courage to go out and find his wounded comrade.  I imagine him finding his friend, and holding him in his arms such that he might spend his last conscious moments in some comfort, instead of lying alone in the soil of a foreign land.


And of that friend who gazed up at him and whispered with his dying breath, "I knew you would come".


These are some of the images and thoughts I consider on this day.


And however inadequate it may be, I say to the fallen and to those still stand and serve, "Thank you". 

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