To See and Feel and Witness

Dear Will:

Last week I drove north on Veteran Avenue en route to my son’s apartment near the UCLA campus. As a Bruin myself, I’ve driven that road countless times, but it’s been a while. The drive was thus made new again by the morning view it gave me of the Los Angeles National Cemetery, with its silent rows of gravestones, standing at attention to honor the veterans who lie in rest there along the avenue—90,000+ as I understand it.

The sight will hush you into an urge to turn off the radio. Which you should do.

During the first few years of our married life together, Dana and I lived in a duplex apartment just south of that cemetery. I can remember one Memorial Day pushing a stroller through its hallowed rows and talking to my firstborn about what made those grounds so sacred. He could not have been more than two years old, so his dad’s discourse was surely incomprehensible. But you do not need language to convey the feeling that lingers in a place like that. As a new father, I felt it was important that Luke have that experience—that even as a toddler he have the chance to see and feel and witness.

I still feel that way. Perhaps it is because of the impact of my first visit to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. I was there in February of my senior year in high school, and there was snow on the ground. When it’s cold like that, they change the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier every half hour, but what gave me chills was not the weather. It was the image of one member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, assigned to stand guard while I watched in reverent silence. I can still picture the face of that stoic soldier whose every step reverberated through the grounds. He did not vary his 21-step cadence as he marched in the morning chill, the physical effect of which could be plainly seen streaming from his nose, across his chin, and onto the front of his otherwise impeccable uniform. And yet he did not sniff nor flinch nor waver. I was awestruck (still am!) by the respect and honor he showed on our behalf as we gathered in grateful tribute to the nameless soldiers represented there.

How many thousands more like them have given what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion”? And how many others have similarly sworn to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” an obligation they have taken “freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion”? It’s a remarkable choice given the possible consequences. I have a nephew, a newly commissioned West Point grad, who just a few weeks ago took that very oath. I watched the scene play out via video. And I wept.

These men and women, both living and dead, represent the very best in us, modeling the very best that we can be. Among those of us who have taken an easier, safer course, they have no equal. In fact, the very best of all has himself declared: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). It bears repeating: You cannot love more than that. May no one ever doubt their convictions, question their devotion, or denigrate their service. Such women and men deserve and have earned our greatest respect and (given the nature of their sacrifice) our eternal gratitude.

And so, if I could, on this Veterans Day I would write to all of them these words which cannot possibly convey the depth of what I feel: Thank you for your service.

PW

The Hopi Are Onto Me

Dear Will:

I look up, and justlikethat, June has disappeared. That’s what happens when you cram two separate family vacations into a single month. In case you’re wondering, I don’t recommend it.

We spent a week in Virginia, visiting the old historical sites of Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown. Then for good measure, we spent three days in Washington D.C. I felt like those pioneer children we sang about as kids: We walked and walked and walked and walked. For much of our visit the temperature was in the 90s with humidity to match. You won’t be surprised to hear that after 10 days of historical ruminations, Seth (my nine-year-old) declared that his favorite part of the trip was the day we spent at the water park.  Since it was over 100 that day, I can’t say that I’m surprised.

As for me, I especially enjoyed Yorktown and visiting the monuments and Arlington National  Cemetery. I found myself feeling very quiet on that hallowed ground. It’s nice to be reminded of what is possible when good people live up to high ideals. It made me want to be a better person. This was also my first chance to see the new World War II Memorial. All I can say is it was awesome.

After just one week at home, we loaded up the minivan and drove to Antimony, Utah. In case you’re wondering how to get there, you can reach Antimony by driving to the middle of nowhere and turning right. We gathered at a horse ranch there with 35 members of my wife’s family, including all six of her siblings and a pretty good sampling of nephews, nieces, and sundry in-laws. Much to my surprise I really liked the place. The staff was charming, the accommodations appropriately cozy, and (best of all) there was no cell phone reception. I rewarded myself by leaving my laptop at home as well. Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered a porch swing, hidden out back in the shade, removed from the bustle of humanity. Each afternoon I would sneak off to my secret swing and (get this) read a book. No, really. I actually did. It was the highlight of my month.

It’s sad, but not at all surprising, that I had to drive to Antimony in order to slow down. It says a lot about my crazy existence. Several years ago (maybe 25?) there was a movie out called Koyaanisqatsi.  (If you never saw it in a theater I feel sorry for you. It was amazing cinema. Rent it if you can, but in the home theater you cannot approximate the full effect of the film. I can say without equivocation that it is unlike anything you have ever seen before. If you do watch it, let me know what you think.) Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi Indian word which apparently means “crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living.” Let me put it this way: It doesn’t take very long in the porch swing to start thinking that the Hopi know all about your way of life.

Unfortunately, some other way of life is not really an option at this point. I lack the nerve to ditch it all and move out to the country. And I’m pretty certain that I would be miserable there anyway. But it’s nice, from time to time, to get off of the thoroughfare and wander down an unpaved path. Usually when I’m feeling like this it does my soul good to pull out my tattered copy of Walden and read again about Thoreau’s attempt “to live deliberately.” Thus I do vicariously what I would never otherwise do, and along the way I am reminded that there is more to life than the daily have-to’s of modern life.

Enough of my musing. I’ll end here and put this rambling missive in the mail to you (long overdue, I must confess—sorry). Then I’m going to go read my book (Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides). If anyone’s looking for me, tell them I’m out back, swinging in the shade.

PW

That They Shall Not Have Died in Vain

Dear Will:

It’s Memorial Day weekend, but it hasn’t felt much like a holiday around here.  We recently installed some cabinets in our garage, which meant that first I had to spend several evenings culling through our “stuff” and piling everything that was worth keeping into a heap in the middle of the garage.  It then took me two full days to assign the various heap units to their new homes.  The garage looks great (it won’t last, I know; but for a few days we’re indulging the fantasy).  Still, I can’t wait to get back to the office so that I can relax.

As I pulled out my flag to commemorate the holiday, I found myself thinking about patriots.  The great patriots of the world have demonstrated a clear sense that the collective is more important than the individual.  They understood that in the fight to establish or preserve freedom for a nation, the focus cannot be on “me” or “mine,” but rather has to be on “us” and “ours.” Consider the words of Moroni, the great Book of Mormon patriot, which he hastily scrawled but carefully chose as he placed them on the Title of Liberty.  “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children,” it read (Alma 46:12).  That banner became a rallying point for a nation, its message a rallying cry for a people.  It reminded the Nephites that they had something worth fighting for.

Moroni’s selfless leadership also reflected an understanding that in order to achieve great things it would be necessary to give up, or at least place at risk, some good things.  That’s why often, when we speak of glorious patriots, we also speak of tragic death.  Because, as Emerson said, they “[dared] to die, and leave their children free.” A couple of years ago, my wife Dana and I enjoyed one of the most moving Sabbaths of our lives.  After attending church in downtown Washington D.C., we set out for an afternoon of quiet reflection at the various memorials in and around the capital, each one paying homage to patriots, both famous and obscure.  We watched visitors take rubbings from that great wall of the Vietnam Memorial.  We were moved by the drama of the Korean War Memorial.  But nothing was so moving as our trek through Arlington National Cemetery, with its rows upon rows of nondescript gravestones, each paying tribute to a life given up for country.  We witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watched reverently as the honor guard marched 21 steps up, 21 steps back, 21 steps up, 21 steps back—each step honoring the many unnamed men and women who have died defending our country.

Patriots such as these have knowingly faced the ironic truth that in order to preserve our lives and families, we may have to temporarily or permanently forsake them.  It’s a truth that Jesus himself taught.  “For whosoever shall save his life shall lose it,” He said, “and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it”  (Matthew 16:25).  Jesus also said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).  It’s what Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”  It is the ultimate sacrifice, an act of selflessness that cannot be matched: sacrifice made often in the face of staggering odds; selflessness that defies reason.

What of us then?  Perhaps as we reflect on the great lives and deaths of patriots, we can once again find inspiration in the words of Lincoln, pronounced just months after the bloody battle at Gettysburg: “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say. . . , but it can never forget what they did. . . .  It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated . . . to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we . . . highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain. . . .”

PW