Sunday, July 27, 2008
ALL IS FORGIVEN
He laughed with his comrades in arms at mess. But the laughter never reached his eyes. His comrades did not notice. Because the laughter did not reach their eyes as well. They had shared their tales of the day’s bombings as they always did. But for the first time since they had flown together much of each tale was either made up or truth glossed over.
He dreaded having to sleep. He avoided it as long as he could. Finally there could be no more excuses and he had to go lie in his bunk.
Tonight all the beds, normally filled with the snores of the pilots, were dead quiet. Not one soldier in that room slept that night. Nor did they sleep at all well for many other nights.
When he’d first heard the nasty rumors he had dismissed them. Why on earth would this man’s army want a group of first rate P-51 flyers to fly P-47’s? It just made no sense. But the rumors were true. And he was a good pilot. And a loyal soldier.
He lay in his bunk that night and tried to close his eyes. But every time he did the faces would come back to him. The faces of those he had killed that day. The first time in his two years in this war that what he did looked back at him with eyes full of fear and horror. As if he were the monster.
Nothing in his 21 years on this earth had prepared him for this kind of soul destroying experience. He was a builder! He was a man who loved the earth. He was moral and good. Raised by Godly and decent parents. He was taught that to kill was a sin.
And today he had killed.
Of course he had killed on other days, but in his P-51 so high in the sky there were no faces. His targets were munitions dumps. Train stations. Bridges. Nothing with faces or eyes that shouted accusations of “Killer!” to him. And he knew enough German from his mother to understand the curses yelled up to him.
He was not the monster here!
He tried to close his eyes again. Then had to smother his face into his pillow to try to erase what had burned into his brain.
Each day that followed, each new mission completed, carved out a little more of each soldier’s soul. Dark circles and sunken cheeks occupied the place where the warm comfort of camaraderie used to light up the mess hall each night. For the first time since they’d been stationed in Paris, trays were returned with uneaten food. The cook, a normally sensitive cuisinier, did not complain. He knew.
Each night during that dark time he would return to his bunk. Some nights he would bury his face so hard into his pillow, hoping to be able to cry. Or scream. Nothing would come. Just the faces. Men. Women. And even children. Their homes. And he was the destroyer.
After a time the emptiness settled into a very large knot that lived in the pit of his stomach for the rest of his life. It was a knot that had strangling tendrils that would reach up to his mind and repeat the same message. Over and over. That he did not deserve to have any kind of a life after this. That he was no longer entitled to the life he carried in his sack of bones. That nothing he could ever do would make up for what he had done to those faces.
When the war was over and he was sent back home, he did what all his buddies were doing. He pushed the knot way way down. And pretended it wasn’t there. Though his nights were filled with nightmares that lifted him, screaming, out of his bed.
I do not know if what I wrote above is what actually happened. This is what I can only imagine happened to soldiers in WWII. And in all wars past. And after. Innocent young boys (and now women) were trained to use instruments of death and destruction, without any thought or attention given to what this would do to their souls and their psyches. During or after. They were sworn in to do a necessary and ugly job. And they did it with stoic courage and honor.
I am safe today in a privileged life because of what my father did in WWII. I did not fully appreciate the gift of his sacrifice until later in his life. I am so grateful that I finally did in time to call him on Veteran’s Day to thank him.
But the tragedy is that even then, he still felt unworthy and not entitled. And almost nobody ever knew this.
And it did not fully occur to me until the last couple months when visions of the above and what he must have experienced during that time took up a dance in my head. I pray he’s somewhere he can read this and know that I know now. And that I understand.
Like I said to you that last day, Dad, all is forgiven. ALL is forgiven.