By Bill Hattendorf, Lay Preacher
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
To every thing (“Turn Turn Turn”) there is a season (“Turn Turn Turn”), and a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to reap; A time to kill, and a time to heal.
So today is a season, if you will, of honoring veterans, and in some case a hoping of healing for them.
As most of us know, today, the 11th day of the 11th month, at the 11th hour, marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great World War, or “The War to End all Wars.” The 11th of November was first called Armistice Day, and then Veterans Day, and eventually it was a national holiday. (There is a fascinating article in this past week’s New Yorker about the end of that war, titled “The Eleventh Hour,” being as strange as its beginning.)
Veterans Day is for honoring living veterans, as opposed to Memorial Day in May when we remember the fallen. But I think it’s human nature to remember the fallen ones today as well.
Let me tell you right off that I’m a veteran.
My father and my three uncles and my grandfathers and two great-grandfathers were all veterans. One of my great-grandfathers, John Pender McLeod, who fought at Gettysburg and other places joined the 14th Vermont
Regiment just up the road in Brattleboro.
My dad was a fighter pilot in WWII. In 1940, he and his brother talked the local recruiting office into promising they could serve together as pilots. It wasn’t approved policy, but somehow it all worked out and they went through flight training and duty assignments in England, Ireland, North Africa and Italy together.
We have lots of newspaper clippings written about the exploits of those “Flying Hattendorf Brothers.” Gene Autry’s weekly radio program during the war did a radio dramatization with actors and sound effects and dramatic music playing as they acted out one of their P-38 missions.
My own military service in the Army was in 1969-71. I did basic and advanced training at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. I got pulled out of training regularly to help with military funerals in the state, as there seemed to be lots of them there that fall. I was a military pallbearer for 22 funerals in four months, (and almost all of the deceased died in Vietnam). At the end of the graveside portion, after Taps is played, the flag is carefully folded into a triangle and is presented to the next of kin. The officer-in-charge takes a knee and says, “On behalf of the President and the people of a grateful nation, may I present this flag as a token of appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
Those words stick in my mind: “On behalf of a grateful nation” … that’s what we do on Veterans Day … we come together as a “grateful nation” to give thanks for “honorable and faithful service.”
When I got to Nam, I first served with the 75th Rangers, Company F, attached to the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi, serving in Vietnam and Cambodia. Many of my assignments were going out in six-man teams on long range reconnaissance patrols, secretly imbedding ourselves for a couple of days and nights to watch enemy movements. It was a difficult time. I lost my best friend there, Fred Hopson.
Truth be told, I was never enthusiastic about serving in the war in Vietnam, but I gave it my all, made the best of it, thinking I was trying to make my own small corner of the world a better place.
When I came home I was not spit on and I didn’t get things thrown at me like some Vietnam returnees I know did, but I came home right as the sentencing was happening for Lt. William Calley over atrocities committed in the My Lai massacre. So when I got home, all anybody wanted to ask me was how many women and babies did I kill? And even though I hadn’t killed a single woman or baby, that was not a conversation I wanted to have. I just wanted to get back to civilian life.
I literally put Vietnam away – my uniform and medals and all in a box in the back of a closet at my parents house. I asserted that Vietnam didn’t have any effect on me. I refused to count the two birthdays I spent over there.
I thought I was seamlessly reentering civilian life. Perhaps in some ways I was. But old friends, besides having aged a bit, did seem a little different. I was sure I hadn’t changed at all, of course. It took me 35 years to figure out I had some issues to deal with.
But I did. And I have. And I hope I’m the stronger for it.
To everything there is a season: a time to build up, a time to break down; a time to rend, a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak. In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus speaks – He goes on a tirade about the scribal class, although Mark is full of tension between Jesus and the scribes. Did the scribes really cheat widows out of their homes? We don’t know, but through that Mark gives us a way to connect that lesson with Jesus’s observation of a poor widow giving all she had, which seems to be more about the ways the scribes treasury consumed the means of the poor.
But the widow still gave … out of a sense of obligation, perhaps, out of a sense of hope. In ancient Israel, the poor were not required to give; they simply did so because they believed in the goodness of the institution, the goodness of its leaders, and the need for the religious institution to remain. She was serving society in the only way she was able. I relate to that personally in that I thought by accepting my military call, I was serving society as well.
To everything there is a season. This season right now, this time of year, always feels different to me; it does funny things to me. I suspect that fewer hours of daylight effect some things.
But to some me, the season we’re in right now is “All Saints,” not just the All Saints Day last Sunday. The season began the first of November or before, and it goes on through Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas, at least to Epiphany. I think of these 10 weeks or so as “All Saints Season.” During this time, manifested publicly at our house with a candle in every window, I feel I have a heightened awareness of the spiritual – I’m in an intensified period of what my Scottish grandmother called the “thin places.”
“Thin places” are those times or events in our lives when it seems like the veil between heaven and earth – or between this visible, touchable, physical world and the invisible, spiritual, eternal world is stretched very thin. It happens when the curtain between them seems more porous – thinner – and between heaven and earth – between the here and now and the there and then – communication seems to pass back and forth more easily, that we’re in a more Godly place, when we are more hyper-aware of life’s deeper meaning.
God feels closer, and we feel more interconnected. Everything that has happened before has led us to this moment, and this moment is part of a larger, unfolding future. Thin places are mystical. You can’t create them or invent them; they simply happen. They come from God. I think of them occurring mostly in peaceful or beautiful or magnificent places, but thin spaces happened for me in training and in wartime.
One of the ways armies train you for war is to debase the enemy, to make the people you’re fighting against less than human. One way of coping with war was to de-personalize those other folks (even of the good guys and the bad guys looked exactly alike).
Most of our travel in Vietnam was by helicopter, but we used trucks sometimes if we weren’t going very far. About two-thirds of the way through my tour, I can remember going through a village in a convoy on the back of the last truck. Most of the people were walking in the same direction we were going. They had separated up ahead to let us go through, and I was seeing the people funneling back together behind us, all of these eyes looking up at us as we blankly stared out at them – or over them. And I’m not sure exactly what happened, but calling it a “thin place” is about the only answer I’ve ever come up with.
Somebody I told this to suggested it seemed like a “silent thunderclap.” All of a sudden, for me, this sea of humanity that I’d been seeing for the last ten months without personality or personal traits, mysteriously turned into individual people with individual faces. All of a sudden, they became real people, with personal stories, and that changed the whole nature and experience of the war for me. Frankly, It made my last months in country more difficult. More wrenching.
This time of year, in this “thin place,” I’m filled with gratitude for all of God’s blessings. High among those blessings are the sacrifices of so many veterans, living and gone. They came from farms and from cities, they came from colleges and factories. They came – white, black, red, yellow, brown – with Polish names, Italian, Jewish, Russian, African, English, or Arabic names. They answered the call from every quarter and section of our American life.
Some years ago, I encountered a “thin place” that was military related, but not about my service. My dad was involved with reunions of his 82nd Fighter Group Association. Dad was president of the group for a while, and hosted some 350 people when he brought the reunion to Atlanta one year. As the original members began dying off, they starting inviting family members along. The first one Sheila and I attended was in Hartford in 2003. There were air museum tours, a river boat ride, and a memorial service for those who had died in the last year, but the event that I remember most was the final banquet.
There were flourishes like the color guard, and presentation a rose to each lady present. The pledge of allegiance was amazingly emotional. At one point, each former service member was asked to give his name, home state, when he’d served, and what his duty was.
I think the first to talk probably seemed the oldest. Dave Hawkins was in a wheelchair with his wife beside him. From Idaho, he’d joined the Army Air Corps when his was 18, and married his high school sweetheart a week before shipping out. Their youngest daughter was with them. He’d been a crew chief.
The next person was Olin Medley, joining up part-way through college. He was a pilot, like my dad; in fact the two of them crossed the ocean together on the Queen Mary. His wife and two daughters were with him, and he was from Oklahoma City, where he still lived.
Early in those personal introductions, I had closed my eyes, not really thinking about it, as I listened to each speaker. In my mind’s eye, I could see each speaker in his youth, full of vim and vigor, these now older, senior veterans. What hopes, dreams, and visions they must have had as they answered their nation’s call. What heart-break they felt as they left careers, girl-friends, parents, children. I saw them in their former youth … and I suspected that they saw themselves momentarily back in their youth as well.
The master of ceremonies for the evening, Monty Powers, talked about how they had been part of something larger than themselves – that the missions couldn’t have happened without the P38 pilots in the air but also the ground crew on earth to keep the planes flying and all the support at home and from the allies to keep the machine of war going on to victory. He spoke of how all our common life depends upon this sense of teamwork and sacrifice.
The freedom we enjoy, this abundance of life, the liberties we so easily take for granted were paid for at huge cost. 43 million Americans have offered themselves for this freedom; two million were permanently disabled due to battle wounds, and 660,000 have paid the supreme sacrifice of their own lives.
We are – all of us – so much more interconnected than we know. Actions of veterans way back in the 1770s or the 1860s have had a huge impact our lives today (to say nothing of more recent wars)
“On behalf of a grateful nation …”
So in this season that I call “All Saints,” on this Veterans Day weekend, I invite you to acknowledge – to join me – in this “thin place” in which we find ourselves surrounded – surrounded – by so great a cloud of witnesses. Can you sense their presence? Many of them have sat in these pews and worshipped in this space. All the Saints.
Let us be thankful … for those who have gone before … and for those 25 million veterans who are still living in our midst. May we truly be “a grateful nation.” Amen.
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