“Byorthwold spoke; he grasped his shield; he was an old companion; he shook his ash spear; full boldly he exhorted the warriors: 'Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener, courage the greater, as our might lessens. Here lies our leader all hewn down, the valiant man in the dust; may he lament for ever who thinks now to turn from this war-play. I am old in age; I will not hence, but I purpose to lie by the side of my lord. . ."
In these few words, a better description of heroism, of unwavering dedication and loyalty I've not read in a while. The lines “Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener, courage the greater, as our might lessens" are a thousand years old, a pre Christian heroic spirit which author J.R. Tolkien, a crafter of worlds where chivalry roared, himself called "Northernness".
My Dad is a peaceable men, and I would imagine that the majority of men who lived and died on that piece of ground on this day seventy years ago would have said the same thing about themselves. They looked at battle as I do, more than the desire to pursue and kill but endurance, the conviction and longing to endure beyond all imaginable limits of the flesh to protect and preserve.
There was a difference between aggression and self defense, a difference between being devoted to justice and being a school yard bully. It is a self-awareness and self-restraint and differs as night and day from apathy, the concept of which Christians might refer to as meekness, a trait often associated with Christ, and clearly as misunderstood.
Four years apart. In the big scheme of their lives, those years were only a blink, yet it colored everything about how they lived after that, like the war was a lens that they would forever look through. I look at all the pictures they sent to one another during that time and there are pictures of fun, and the laughter of just being 20-something years old; photos of Mom hamming it up with her friends, and photos of my Dad in his 44th Bomb Group uniform, on a rare afternoon free.
But if you can look real close, you can see the worry about their eyes, anxious nights and sleepless waiting, not for days. . or months. . . but for years. . . . . wondering if they would ever again see the bright clear eyes of the one they loved. There is no worse feeling, I can tell you that. But things were different then. There were no flights home, no leave back stateside to visit friends and family. Once Dad left on the Queen Mary to sail over, he did not return until the War had ended.
That night as the fireworks began, and we sat, a family absent my Mom who had passed on a few years prior, in the old wooden chairs they'd bought as newlyweds. As the rockets rained down, ones that exploded like living thunder, and the small lit ones that draped across the sky like a lei, flowerings of light floating slowly down to our safe little spot I glanced over at my Dad. As the last one, the showstopper, exploded in a blinding red and white of a thousand suns and a burst of sound that hurt the ears, I saw the tear on his rapt upturned face, his hand over his heart, as he remembered his comrades, as he remembered the beautiful girl who he had proudly fought for, there in the safe world they all made for us.
The year could be 1944, it could 2017. A hand on a rough shovel, flinging the dirt with an effortless fury, the mound of soil rising of its own volition, not crafted by man but as if flung forth by the earth itself, until the grave is readied. A warrior has fallen, medals scribed on ore or heart, small things insignificant to the view, but mute with profound meaning. The earth waits but a moment. Shadows fall with the moon's curve, no sound but the labored breath of form of one who engaged without arms, this single combat. Laying a warrior to rest. There is now but a shield to be picked up and carried on. So, man or woman, we never forget what was sacrificed for us all.