Monday, November 11, 2013

Caring for the Dead: Thoughts on Veterans Day 2013

On the Crown Square in the midst of Edinburgh Castle, I watched an old woman in a tweedy coat and sensible shoes lead a young, freshly-combed boy into the Hall of Honour at the Scottish National War Memorial, an old barracks reshaped into a hallowed place for records and remembrance at the end of the Great War, World War I.
The woman and boy had walked through the Gatehouse and up the steep path.  I held a ticket for admission into the castle; but for them there was no monetary fee for entry into the War Memorial.  They moved through the quietness and soft light of stained glass windows. They paused before the great steel Casket in the Shrine room.  They turned as one and trod a familiar way through the Gothic arch to the western hall.  There, among the bays of memorials dedicated to different regiments of the Service, the two stopped. 

Thick red leather-bound books awaited them on low shelves that spanned the stone walls of the room.  The woman reached out a practiced hand and opened one tome to the lone page I expect she has come to know intimately for forty, fifty, sixty years.  With one finger she traced a beloved name, “fairly written”, as the founders of this Memorial decreed, with name, rank, company, dates of birth and death, and place where a brother, father, husband, uncle, fiancĂ©, or lover died. 
She spoke with the boy who was studying the bronze plaques on the walls.  Their deed completed, she closed the book gently, took the boy’s hand in hers and left that splendid building created to honor and remember 150,000 Scottish soldiers who died in the War-to-End-All-Wars. 

Now, there are more than 150,000 names.  So many more have been added to the Rolls of Honour throughout the Second World War, Korea, Falkland Islands, Iraq, Afghanistan.  As long as there are soldiers to war and scribes to record, the great books will grow in number, filled with “fairly written” names, dates, and places of death.

July 1, 1916  was the first day of the Battle of the Somme.  In 2006, the ninetieth anniversary was commemorated with dignitaries, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall and French schoolgirls who scattered red poppy blossoms.  

Members of the military blew whistles and reenacted battle scenes.  Grandsons, great-grandsons, and nephews marched in the footsteps of men gone before them, following trails left in letters, diaries and oral histories.

I thought of the old woman and the boy as I listened to the ceremonies on the radio.  Memories of the Hall of Honour and those thick red leather books filled with fine writing haunted me.  

There were no living veterans of the battle on the Somme River for the anniversary.  No soldiers to relive the hell that began in July 1916.  No warriors to bemoan the battle fought relentlessly until the mud and rain of November forced a halt. 

At the end of it all, the United Kingdom and French Allies had advanced a total of eight miles during the Battle of the Somme.  With a million men dead, the bodies might have stretched from Paris to Berlin to London and back again, never mind how they could form in mountains over that hard-won, eight-mile strip of no man’s land. 

America entered World War I, finally.  One of my grandfathers enlisted on June 3, 1917.  He was a farmer from Tolland, Massachusetts.  He was sent as a soldier to the trenches of France.  He never spoke of his experiences.  

He owned a grocery store. I remember him, a big man dressed in white and covered by a blood and fat-smeared apron.  His passion was the Maine woods where he hunted and fished with a close band of solemn, silent men.  

When my grandfather died, these same men, then bent and frail with age, carried his ashes by canoe and backpack to their hunting lodge.  They buried him there by a big rock at the water’s edge, far from the battlefields of his life. 

Once I read how people grasp things far beyond what is healthy and/ or necessary out of a fear of regret.  We regret our decisions, our choices, speech or inaction.  We fear a shortage of forgiveness.  

Yet, I wonder what could happen if there were no regrets?  What if we all decided not to send young people to war or old people into obscurity?  

What if caring for the Living were as natural and as valued a human trait as is our devotion to the dead.  
No guilt.  No regrets.
What if.