Been thinking about legacies lately. Not the kind that gets passed down in a will but the kind that get passed down in our hearts.

Becoming a beginnerI started thinking about it as I read a column about a World war II vet in our area. Like Forrest Gump, he always seemed to be around when history was being made: meeting Douglas McArthur, Pearl Harbor after the attacks, the flag raising at Iwo Jima, the bomb dropping at Hiroshima. I gradually realized that I knew this vet: his grandson is married to my niece. I didn’t make the connection at first because I hadn’t heard most of the stories.

Which led me to thinking about the legacy my niece’s children have. Their dad’s grandfather was a frogman, swimming underwater to find and defuse bombs before they could blow up ships. He’d gotten the job because as a boy, he’d grown up swimming. My niece’s grandfather (my father) was a sniper in Gen. Patton’s army. The work suited him not only because he was a good shot but because much of it meant working independently, freelancing, going out ahead to scout out the land and the enemy. He liked being able to do that. An artist, he could draw what he saw.

Two great grandfathers who did what they could in a terrible time. Two young men – more like boys, really – who used what they had in order to stand up to a great evil. Two men who did a job that was terrible in ways I cannot imagine, who sacrificed more than most of us know and who came home to do the mundane, priceless; blessed work of providing for and raising their families. As family legacies go, my niece and her husband could do worse.

I profoundly hope that Jack, Emma and Olivia never have to fight in a war. (If they do, Emma will be the one with combat boot bling.) I do hope, however, that they will live in the courage and commitment of their great grandfather’s legacies: that they will use what they have to make the world a better place, that if they see evil or when they see injustice they will not be afraid to oppose it. That they will work to bless the world, whether one cause at the time or one family at the time.

I hope they realize that doing such things is simply in their blood. They are the descendants of Joe and of Clive.

Family legacies can be great treasures that inspire us. Or they can be cautionary tales that we choose to rise above. What are your legacies?


Veteran’s Day

Today is 11.11.11. It is also Veteran’s Day.

Pvt. Haymes in Paris

For me the face of Veteran’s Day is always Pvt. Joseph A. Haymes, known to his comrades in arms as “Virginia” (his home state.) He was a sniper in General Patton’s Third Army, Yankee Division. As a sniper, he was often freelancing as Patton’s army made its record-setting march across France, going off on his own to spy out a situation or to attack a specific target.

Exploding shrapnel took a chunk of his leg on November 8, 1944, outside of the French village of Moyenvic. By the end of the day, any member of his unit who had not been wounded had been killed or taken prisoner. As a sniper, he would have been killed as soon as he was captured. He recovered and returned to the front but something was different. Before, he’d assumed he was never getting home again. Now it was a possibility and it made things seem all the more dangerous.

Fifty odd years after the war, he returned to France with members of the Yankee Division. Every village hailed them as heroes, throwing civic banquets in their honor. In fact, if you look up “Moyenvic” on Wikipedia, you’ll see a picture of the monument that was placed there in their honor.

In my mind, my father was the best kind of soldier. He took great pride in what he did… and yet had no taste for it. When they interviewed him about being a sniper, they asked if he could bring himself to aim directly at another man. And could he not grow to like it. He did both.

He knew that he was doing a job that had to be done. There was no question but that Hitler had to be stopped. He took pride in being a part of something so important, and took pride in doing it well. But he had no romance for war. He once wrote, “War is hard on men who are old enough to know better.” His was not the glib and easy patriotism of those who have never heard the bullets and seen the blood. His was the patriotism that is willing to do the hard things simply because they must be done.

He carries the war with him. He carries it in the crater of a scar that marks his leg. (One day recently he complained to me that his leg was giving him pain. “Did you hurt it?” I asked. “Yes, he said, “someone shot me.”) He also carries it with him in his stories – the ones he has shared and the ones he will never tell.

I know that he will appreciate being honored and remembered today. But I think I can safely say that he would be even more honored to live in  a world where young men and women did not have to do such things. Let us honor our veterans not only with our thanks but also with our commitment to peacemaking.

Our peacemaking can begin on a small scale. It begins when we refuse to divide up into us versus them. It begins when we try to hear, really hear, someone who is different from us.  It comes as we ask from our political leaders; yea, demand from  our leaders not the easiest courses, the ones best suited for glib soundbites, but the wisest ones – not only for ourselves but for our children.

It may be unrealistic to envision a world without war. But it may be necessary that we try.