Thursday, December 24, 2009

On Seizing the Day and Unfulfilled Dreams

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”)

I never knew my Uncle Ted. (In the picture above, he is standing in the second row at the end on the right hand side, the tallest of the bunch.) His plane and crew fell from the sky, shot down over Vienna on March 22, 1945. Ted was 21 years old at the time, the second oldest of three brothers, and the son of two loving parents. My father remembers Ted as mature and wise beyond his years; a kind and gentle man, somewhat shy and bookish, he had plans to attend college when the war was over, possibly to go on to seminary and become a Lutheran minister. Ted died a hero’s death, fighting for our freedoms, yet I cannot help but wonder what might have been – for Ted, and for the millions of young men who died in that war and the many others our nation has fought.

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.
There is a Latin phrase, carpe diem, made famous in the movie Dead Poets Society, which translated means “seize the day”. The phrase comes from Horace, in Odes Book I: Dum loquimur, fugerit invida Aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero: “While we're talking, envious time is fleeing: seize the day, put no trust in the future.” Whether or not intended for young men going off to war, it is a warning that, unless you make the most of life now, you may never have the chance to experience life in all its dimensions. To feel love and loss, joy and pain, all of the things that allows us to know we are alive. Too often, we muddle through our daily routines focused on the task at hand, failing to inhale life, to live in the moment and appreciate the uniqueness of each day. For each moment that passes is forever lost in time.

When I think of Ted and his unfulfilled dreams and passions lost, I question whether I have really embraced the opportunity to ponder life and all its wonder. Have I breathed deeply and smelled the fresh scent of a rosebud on a spring morning? Have I appreciated the sun as it breaks through the crisp winter air, the blue sky painting the background, laced with cotton-like white clouds? Have I examined the moon on a clear night, searched for the constellations in the expanse of the universe, or appreciated the peacefulness of a silent snowfall?

Ted was one of over 416,000 Americans who died in World War II, a war in which the world suffered 60 million deaths. I am immensely proud of my Uncle Ted and all of his compatriots who fought in that war. Until a greater national cause arrives upon the American scene, Ted and his cohorts will remain the Greatest Generation. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in The Insecurity of Freedom (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1959), “Freedom presupposes the capacity for sacrifice.” Ted and his crewmates sacrificed so that we may carry on in a free and prosperous land, so that we may experience life. On my wall is a framed certificate of recognition from President Harry Truman, honoring Ted’s death. On it is written:

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.
When I think of Ted and the sacrifice he paid, I feel the humility to which President Truman referred. As it pains me to consider what might have been, there is comfort in believing that, in our freedom, Ted and his band of brothers continue to live. Yet as I write, on Christmas Eve, part of the world prepares to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. I cannot help but consider the dichotomy of our existence, the hypocrisy of our actions as a people. There is a part of me that insists on asking whether Ted, and the other valiant and courageous young men who died and fought alongside of him, were victims – of the failure of humanity and the incapacity of the human heart. I have acknowledged more than once that war is sometimes necessary – as it no doubt was in Ted’s lifetime – but no one will ever convince me that war is anything but inherently evil.

Hold fast to dreams / For if dreams die / Life is a broken-winged bird / That cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams / For when dreams go / Life is a barren field / Frozen with snow. --Langston Hughes (“Dreams”)

Here is wishing all a time of peace and dreams fulfilled; seize the day and make the most of life, always recognizing those who have sacrificed for our freedoms, whose lives were abruptly and unfairly cut short, their dreams unfulfilled. As Heschel noted, “Modern man continues to ponder: What will I get out of life? What escapes his attention is the fundamental, yet forgotten question: What will life get out of me?”


  1. Thank you for a moving piece on the Uncle you never met. When you said "Uncle Ted" I kept thinking of Ted Kennedy, Joe Jr. who was KIA in WWII, and how our country's history might have been different if he had survived. Though not on the same level, I also think of Lance Armstrong, who survived because one of his employers threatened to move insurers if the company did not put him on their policy. He was average at best at that time. It shows what a difference he has made to many of us in his life.

    Merry Christmas.

  2. Thanks Mike. It is always both sad and interesting to raise the question, "What might have been?" when looking at those, like my Uncle Ted and the many others like him who paid the ultimate sacrifice. It is also useful to look at their lives and ask, "What have we made of our lives?" Or, as Heschel asked, "What has life gotten from us?"

  3. A beautiful piece. As I continue to research Uncle Ted's military life, I become humbled at the experiences he and others like him went through for the sake of others. Thanks for writing this piece. It was very moving.

    Your Brother,

  4. Thanks Steve. I look forward to learning more about Ted and his military experiences from your research.

  5. I must agree with cousin Steve,nicely done.I have often wondered myself what would have become of Uncle Ted had he survived the war.
    After reading up on all of the information that Steve has found, I realize what it is like to have had a real Hero in the family.
    I also thank you for writing this piece, and I also look forward to learning more about our Uncle.

  6. Great post, Mark. We can never be reminded enough of the sacrifices the special few make for the many. I will dare, however, to take issue with one thought: The idea that war is inherently evil.

    War is just one response to evil, and in most cases, it is the right choice. It is preferable to running, which leads to death while winded; preferable to surrendering - death on another’s schedule; appeasement - fewer deaths today in exchange for ten fold tomorrow; or diplomacy - death from behind while holding a signed peace treaty. The violence of war is no more evil than the bloody blows exchanged when a brave boy finally stands between a bully and his schoolyard victim. The bloody nose of the weak and the black eye of his protector are the price paid for delayed action and the missing tooth of the bully is the precise level of pain needed to contain the evil in his heart.

    Despite the 60’s mentality that asks, “War: What is it good for? Absolutely nothin’,” war has been quite useful in righting wrongs and spreading or restoring freedom. Your uncle knew this and we are all in his debt. I’m currently reading a biography of General Curtis LeMay, who may have been your uncle’s boss for a time, and a man who saved millions of lives on all sides of the WWII conflict, by, ironically, being an excellent killer of people. LeMay was clear-eyed as to the nature of evil and war: “I’ll tell you what war is about. You’ve got to kill people and when you kill enough of them, they stop fighting.”

    Had we listened in 1979 when Islamists declared war on the Great Satan, maybe there would be far fewer dead Americans today.

    God bless your uncle.

    Rich R.

  7. Phil and Rich -- Thank you both for your comments.

    Rich - Your points on the necessity of war are well taken. However, while I agree with you that war is at times necessary (WWII being a prime example), I still believe that it is a necessary "evil" only to be engaged in as a last resort. While you seem to believe that war should be resorted to whenever necessary to right a wrong, I would first wish to explore and exhaust all non-violent alternatives.

    Most of the examples you cite fall into the category of self-defense or defense-of-others, and would pass muster under Just War Theory. Nevertheless, although war is at times necessary for some of the reasons you articulated, my religious and moral principles lead me to believe that war -- resolving human conflicts over territory, power, religion, and politics by death, killing, and destruction -- is by its very nature against the will of God, and a great testament to the shortcomings of the human race.

    Thank you for the kind words about my uncle. We both agree on the bravery, sacrifice, and heroism of the men and women who have fought and died in our wars (past and present), as well as those who continue to serve our country today.