How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? In a rising wind the manic dust of my friends, those who fell along the way, bitterly stings my face. Yet I turn, I turn, exulting somewhat, with my will intact to go wherever I need to go, and every stone on the road precious to me.
--Stanley Kunitz (“The Layers”)
My Dad recalls a delightful spring Saturday in early April 1945. Only fifteen years old then, a high school sophomore, Dad had just finished baseball practice and was walking home from Lincoln High School a few blocks away. As he approached his family’s Jersey City row house, he noticed his father looking out the upstairs window. As he often did in those days, Dad tried to show off, flipping his glove into the air and catching it behind his back. With a smile on his face, he looked up at the second floor window, only to see his father walk away. There was something not right in his father’s reaction; it was as if his father had turned his back on him, as if my grandfather could not comprehend the frivolity of a spring afternoon and the joking escapades of his youngest son.
When Dad entered the house, he understood immediately. His parents, my grandparents, with tears in their eyes, explained that a telegram from the U.S. Department of the Army had just arrived, informing them that Ted’s B-24 had crashed over the hillsides of Vienna, Austria. As Ted’s body remained unidentified, he was officially listed as “missing in action.” One can only imagine the devastation and pain that such news brings, the likelihood, yet uncertainty, of your child’s death; compounded further by the fear that your other son – my Dad’s brother Warren, the oldest of the three sons, was in Okinawa – might yet receive the same fate. The news then reported from Japan was not good, and the distinct possibility existed of losing two sons in the same war.
Warren thankfully came home after the war; he would marry my Aunt Ann and live another 35 years, work a productive life, raise four children – my cousins – and celebrate 35 more Christmases, unwrapping presents by the tree. He would read books, debate politics, pray, laugh, cry, become exasperated at his sons’ exploits and proud of their accomplishments; he would experience life, the future, and the possibilities, dreams and disappointments of everyday existence.
Ted suffered a different, more tragic, if noble fate. My grandparents learned that two crew members in parachutes had jumped from Ted’s B-24, but only one man out of the ten-person crew was known to have survived. The others remained missing. My grandparents, and the parents of the other nine crew members, latched onto the sliver of hope that, maybe, just maybe, their son was the one in the other parachute. Over the next year, news accounts said that many unidentified military personnel who had survived the war had come back as amnesia victims. Gold Star parents – those who had lost a loved one in battle, or whose sons were deemed missing in action – received permission to walk through the wards of military hospitals in search of their sons. On many occasions over the next year, my Dad accompanied his parents – hoping against hope – that they would find Ted in one of the hospitals. My Dad has often said that he will never forget these experiences; the mixture of hope and desperation in his parents’ eyes; the compassion felt for the wounded soldiers lying in hospital beds, some of whom could not remember their past; the sympathetic expressions and attempts by these young men to provide clues and tidbits of wisdom to my grandparents. As my Dad reflected recently in a sermon he gave on biblical hospitality, this went on for more than a year:
Two words describe that fateful 15 months after the crash before my brother’s body was found and identified. They are “hope and hospitality.” My parents – especially my mother – always felt that Ted would come walking in the front door someday. In her own way, she prepared for that delightful moment by keeping his clothes cleaned and ready for him while secretly planning a “welcome home” party. Even after Ted was declared legally dead a year later, my parents still looked for him in the Bowery in [New York City], the “tenderloin district” in Philadelphia, and other urban cities where the homeless gathered, and she soon started the practice of carrying small packages of food to distribute to many of those who appeared without hope. No matter what – both hope and hospitality kept my parents going.
He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared serve to die that freedom might live, and grow, and increase its blessings. Freedom lives, and through it, he lives – in a way that humbles the undertakings of most men.