By Tom Gehl of Brookfield
"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 impossible odds and the armies of the Persian invader, Xerxes. They did so because it was what they were raised to do, and because they considered their hearths, homes, and way of life to be worth fighting and dying for.
It is here again — the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month", the words of Winston Churchill which noted the Armistice ending World War One. Even as the Great War ended, his spirit was enshrouded by the dread of the next great conflict that he alone could already see. I see him staring out the window of his London apartment, "watching the drizzle of empires falling through the air."
We all pass them by — 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; it is their bearing of intrepid strength and quiet dignity. I will never forget my father-in-law's funeral, when the 25th American Legion Post marched in to honor their fallen comrade. Their tread was unsteady; the steps of old men. But their gaze was steely; the lasered focus of young men intent upon the task of honoring their fallen comrade. They marched in, presented colors, and played the achingly evocative, Taps. I hear those notes and I remember watching our two children absorb the scene, the salt of their tears blending some of life's harsher flavor into their emerging emotional awareness.
November 11th was first known as Armistice Day, noting the end of what was then called The Great War. It was established as the National Holiday we now call Veterans Day in the 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 in Kohler as America awakened from its isolationist slumber, they left the only town they had ever seen to cross the globe and fight against Hirohito, Mussolini, and Hitler. I think of my father in-law; raised on a farm in rural Michigan with the slowly grown wisdom of the soil and the seasons in his bones. I think of him trudging through the snows of Belgium in that Christmas of 1944. I imagine him brushing the snow from his sleeves, thinking of his beloved farm and family as he shivered, wondering if he would see them again. His uniform hangs in our basement closet, and his name is carved forever on the roll call of honor that is George Patton's Third Army; its mythological dash across Western Europe burned indelibly into the pages of history and lore. I think of Andy and his comrades, and of the desperate need we have of such men today.
I think of the riveting scenes of Spielberg's masterpiece Saving Private Ryan, the aging veteran surrounded by his family, then collapsing to his knees in the Normandy cemetery, overcome by the assault waves of his emotion. I see the enormous, over-arching American Flags lufting languidly in the Channel breezes, keeping silent, faithful vigil over her fallen.
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." And I think of Brookfield East graduate Jon Lehman, who now marches those same plains, taking his own place in the Long Gray Line. And I think of our friend Laura Schmidt, and her family; who on Veterans Day will lay to rest her beloved Grandfather and World War Two Veteran, Earl Herrmann.
I again think of Winston Churchill, standing alone and staring into the maw of Nazi evil and 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 described the bonds which exist between fighting men and women; bonds forged upon the anvil of mortal combat.
But more than all of these things, I recall the British infantryman Siegfried Sassoon, who wrote of his World War One experiences in his masterful work, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. I think of him staring into the avalanche of steel and fire that was No Man's Land, somehow convincing himself to go out and find his wounded comrade. I think of the COURAGE that must have taken — offering his own life as forfeit — so that his friend might spend his last conscious moments cradled in his arms, instead of lying alone; his life bleeding out in the cold mud of a foreign land.
And I think of his dying friend, one foot in heaven and one on earth, gazing up at Sassoon and murmuring with his dying breath, "I knew you would come."
I think of these things — I summon these images.
And I learn again the value of a broken and a contrite heart.