Names on Walls

Memorial Day reminds us of those who died while serving in the country’s armed forces. Do we take it personally or is it just a holiday that gives us a long weekend?

On a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, I noticed the monument to those who died on the Battleship Maine. Do you “Remember the Maine” that battle cry that rallied us into the Spanish-American War? No visitor stopped to touch the wall, make rubbings, or even read the names. Will the same come true for the Vietnam Memorial?

I made my first contact with war when I was about three and a half. The family gathered around the most magical piece of furniture in the house, the Philco radio. President Roosevelt announced that we were at war. As I grew, the war became part of the family’s life with Ration Books and War Bonds, the collection of tinfoil, scrap metal, newspapers, and bacon fat. Four uncles and many family friends entered military service. One never came back.

Uncle Eddie had arrived in England only eighteen days earlier. On a training mission, he and his crew flew their B-24 Liberator bomber over the Irish Sea. Upon their return to base, the plane exploded. The grateful citizens of Birkenhead, England—south of Liverpool—carved Eddie’s name and the names of his companions on a memorial. My Aunt wrote that flowers decorate that monument all these years later.

In 1944, The Selective Service System drafted my thirty-four-year-old father into the Navy. We walked him to the Green Line Bus and waved goodbye. He called that night to say that he had been assigned to the USMC Reserves. Eventually, he participated in the invasion and occupation of Okinawa.

I vividly remember a day in September of 1945, when Dad, Mom, and my younger brother met me outside Our Lady of Perpetual Help School. When we had walked home, Dad opened his duffle bag and handed my brother and me Marine fatigue hats and knapsacks. We wore them beyond the point of utility. These battle mementos and endless viewings of John Wayne movies convinced us that we, like Dad would join the Marines.

Growing up, we dressed in parts of our father’s uniforms and joined the neighborhood boys in war games. The only kids excluded from our melees were the young baby boomers and girls.

As the years passed, my younger and youngest brothers joined the Marines. Although my youngest brother and a girl who lived down the block never played our war games, they both saw action in Vietnam. As part of a recon unit, my brother dropped out of helicopters with a massive radio on his back. He has the scars to prove it. The girl joined the Army. Captain Eleanor G. Alexander R. N. died in a plane crash with other nurses and a group of Vietnamese children. You can find her name on The Vietnam Memorial.

I met Rich Roughgarden at Notre Dame. He illuminated his architectural drawings much like an ancient monastic scribe. They were works of art, science, and social commentary. Shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Rich took me along on a road trip east. I visited friends in Brooklyn and attended the Notre Dame-Syracuse game in the old Yankee Stadium. Rich and I lost track of each other, but years later, I noticed his obituary in the Notre Dame Magazine. He served in an engineering unit and died in an accident. His name is on the Wall.

Many served and continued to serve. I know three who died in accidents. Like many, they never fired a shot in anger, but they stood between us and the shooters. They and those who fell in the service of their country remain forever young. Take a moment to remember what they did for us. They deserve our thanks and prayers.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger

“The United States is so powerful that the only country capable of destroying her might be the United States herself, which means that the ultimate terrorist strategy would be just to leave the country alone. That way, America’s ugliest partisan tendencies could emerge unimpeded by the unifying effects of war.”

Polarization, random violence, and racial injustice disturb the domestic tranquility. Sebastian Junger, the author of A Perfect Storm, points to root causes and possible solutions to a growing national fratricide. As a war correspondent, Junger regularly observes the formation of “tribes”— fiercely loyal, egalitarian, classless, aggregations of humans that align their attitudes and values for the survival of every member.

He recounts examples of how humans meet disaster with amazing courage, composure, and unity. During World War II, the London Blitz and the Allied bombings of German cities brought local civilians together in air-raid shelters, forming them into classless communities that not only survive but thrive. The rate of suicides drops below peacetime levels, and industrial production increases as the bombing continues. He notes that persons of different social classes and background forget their differences and unite for national survival.

Because of war and other traumas, local ad-hoc groups exhibit the collective effort typical of the tribes that flourished in North America before the European invasion. After the war, the denizens of bomb shelters often go back to their individual lives and the tribal connections fade. Although they hate the war, some miss the closeness they experienced in the shelters.

The traditional Indian grouping is the band or clan of about fifty individuals. Its members work to preserve tribal unity because, without it, they could not survive. Migratory bands limit their personal property to what they could carry from campsite to campsite, reducing their ability to develop class distinctions based on wealth. After the hunt, every band member receives an equal share of the quarry ensuring that all survive, but none accumulates more than the others. Hoarding or selfishness by a few individuals endangers the rest of the group, so it is not tolerated. Neither are slacking or bullying.

One of the modern equivalents of the tribe is the military platoon. Soldiers live together, fight the same enemy, and, at night, sleep under the same roof. They share everything in common and build an intense bond that despite the external dangers and privation gives the band of brothers and sisters a feeling of belonging. They share a common cause, the safety of their platoon and their country.

Unfortunately, when veterans return to their homes and families, they not only miss the comradery of their platoon, but some are made to feel unnecessary. They notice that civilians seem more intent on serving themselves than the society as a whole.

Junger relates the typical veteran’s homecoming experiences to PTSD, disaffection, and violence. He suggests several practical responses to the needs of returning veterans and more generalized recommendations that urge society to embrace stone-age tribal values as a solution to many of our information-age problems.

Although Junger does not mention it, the characteristics and harmony of stone-age tribal life continue to exist in both monasteries and the persecuted church—“See how they love one another.”

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

Markus Zusak’s social/historical novel, The Book Thief, follows the citizens of Himmel Street in Molching, Germany between 1939 and 1943.  In particular, he logs the fortunes and misfortunes of Hans and Rosa Hubermann and their foster child, Liesel Meminger, the book thief. A town near Munich, Molching often witnesses shambles of Jews and other enemies of the state as the Nazis prod them toward Dachau.

“A procession of tangled people.”

“A cauldron swimming with humans.”

“They streamed by, like human water.”

“With bones like smoke and their souls trailing behind.”

“So many sets of dying eyes and scuffing feet.”

“Their eyes were enormous in their starving skulls.”

The protagonist, Liesel, and her preteen and early teen friends participate in compulsory Hitler Youth meetings, endure nights in air-raid shelters, and slurp pea soup for supper every evening. To lift youthful spirits, the children play football in the streets, build snowmen and steal food for the body and the mind.  Some days Liesel joins an orchard- raiding gang, but she prefers to climb stealthily through an open window into the mayor’s mansion to filch books. These adventures win her unusual friends and build her reputation among her peers.

Hans, her “Papa,” teaches Liesel to read her stolen books. In turn, her reading from her stolen treasures calms her adult neighbors assembled in the air-raid shelter, as the Allied bombers hover above.

Her readings, her conversations with a Jewish friend, and her community’s exposure to Nazi ultra-nationalism and brutality teach her the power of words. She learns that Hitler’s verbal seeds of hate and fear—e.g., “A nation cleans out its garbage and makes itself great”—have grown into a forest of a toxic antisemitism and militarism.  She believes that “without words, the Fuhrer was nothing.”

The intensity of the story escalates to a dramatic conclusion as Liesel and her friends mount protests, leading to physical and political reprisals.

This young adult novel stands on the bleak side of the emotional spectrum. As if the novel’s time, place and circumstances weren’t dreary enough, Zusak chose Death as its narrator. Death speaks directly to the reader as if cultivating sympathy for itself. It seems overworked as it gathers souls from battlefields, concentration camps, and cities targeted by bombers. It still manages to narrate this tale and develop an affection and admiration for Liesel, her adoptive family, and friends.

Death clarifies the value of the small things in life and bids the reader grasps the lasting impact behind seemingly meaningless or even adversarial relationships. Death urges us to appreciate persons and significant objects while we are still able to communicate our love and feelings.

Amid the dark, cold narrative, author Markus Zusak flashes jolts of incongruity, hybrids between oxymorons and Zen koans.

“The taste of a whisper.”

“The chitchat of faraway guns.”

“Suitcases under the eyes.”

“His starving arms.”

“Her wrinkles were like slander.”

“Their voices kneaded methodically at the door.”

It’s not only the sum of Zusak’s plot and characters but these poetic details that shape the greatness of The Book Thief.

Witness for Atonement, by Robert Margetts

 

Rumor had it that during the Cold War, the Soviet Union had targeted my town and several neighboring cities and ports for nuclear strikes. A hardened communications center, less than a mile from my house as the missile flies, now serves as an office complex. The occupants of its companion building make Foot Joy golf shoes and accessories.

Once you live on the potential receiving end of a nuclear bomb, Robert Margetts’ story cuts deeply into one’s conscience. Bob served in the USAF as a navigator-bombardier, and he participated in the Strategic Air Command. When on airborne alert, he navigated B-36s armed with nuclear weapons. If ordered, he would have directed his crew to a target in The Soviet Union or China and would have dropped the bomb.

Later in his career, the Air Force trained him as a launch officer at an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) base where he stood ready to launch between ten to a hundred nuclear bombs. The combined explosive power of a launch ranged between 11.2 and 112 million tons of TNT. One of these bombs carried about 1,000 times the explosive power of the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs.

Bob justified his role in the defense of the United States because our country would never launch these horrific weapons as a first strike. In other words, we would retaliate if our enemy had already dropped nuclear bombs on us. Secondly, we would only bomb military targets. In 1968, the USA reversed its policy toward nuclear weapons. In an emergency, it would attack first and would nuke population centers.

The Second Vatican Council and Popes beginning with Pius XII through Francis, have condemned not only this policy, but any use of nuclear weapons. The Nuremberg Trials established that a soldier may not hide behind the claim that “he was only following orders.” Consequently, Major Robert Margetts asked for reassignment, so that his superiors could never command him to launch ICBMs. They rejected his reasoning and began proceedings that ended his career.

In his new life, Bob awakened to the “culture of death” that includes mutually assured nuclear annihilation, abortion, racism, eugenics and “a hidden agenda to undermine the ways of God.”

He wrote, “Eugenics is a motive of the abortion industry. Abortion as provided by Planned Parenthood has eugenic roots. Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, saw abortion as a means of getting rid of ‘undesirables.’ Blacks, the poor, all other non-whites, especially those not part of the intellectual elite, became targets for abortion. That is why most (over 75%) abortion mills are in poorer sections of our cities.”

Bob cites evidence that the Japanese government sent peace overtures as early as 13 May 1945. The American response: “Work on the Manhattan project was speeded up in fear that Japan might surrender before the bomb could be used.” The destruction of the civilian populations on Hiroshima and Nagasaki warned the Soviets not to invade Japan. Did the end justify the means?

He witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001, from the New Jersey Turnpike, two miles away. “As I look back on that day, I doubt that we can ever think of ourselves as invincible any more. Will this bring about soul-searching in the hearts of many Americans, as it has in me? And – this one is not so easy to ask— was it the beginning of payback? Are we going to reap what we have sown?”

Fr. Eric Bergman told Bob, “If we don’t stop killing the innocent, the chickens will come home to roost…Historically, any nation that has killed innocent life has come under the judgement of God.” Is it too late?

Bob Margetts’ mission is enlist his readers as Witnesses for Atonement. He asks that Americans seek Divine Mercy in atonement for the crimes of our national leaders and for all who support abortion. He asks that all who join in this effort gather at Mass at the annual Feast of the Holy Innocents (28 December). Become a Witness by signing a petition available in the appendix of this book. Participate in acts of atonement including prayer fasting and sacrifice. The second portion of the petition asks the United States to take a leadership role in world nuclear disarmament.

The Monument

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In the distance ahead, a statue loomed amid the park benches and the ubiquitous, tame, mendicant, municipal pigeons.

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From the looks of it I judged: “This bronze must honor a politician. Who else would have the supreme confidence to strut his stuff like this?” As a visitor, ignorant of local celebrities, I ventured, he’s probably a former Mayor of Halifax, perhaps a Premier. Soon enough, I could see his familiar face, grand, determined; untroubled by the rain. He had weathered many a storm in his day. We remember him still.

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Selfless: The Story of Sr. Theophane’s Missionary Life in the Jungles of Papua New Guinea, by Sr. Immolata Reida, SSpS

Selfless: The Story of Sr. Theophane's Missionary Life in the Jungles of Papua New Guinea

This time-capsule, written in 1946 and published for the first time in 2013, transports the reader to the first half of the twentieth century. The author recreates the language, values and simplicity common to that time. The reader observes as the “Greatest Generation Ever,” grows to maturity.

Inez Maier, born in 1906, the baby of the family, although innocence personified, loved mischief. She viewed each boundary as a challenge, whether it was the fence around her family’s property or the Pacific Ocean. Her parents, often the last to find out, struggled with her early explorations.  The focus of her life sharpened when a missionary sister visited Saint Michael’s School. Inez decided that she too would become a missionary sister. In preparation she collected money for the missions (including the pot from her father’s weekly poker game). Inez strengthened her soul, body and mind through prayer, especially a devotion to the Blessed Sacrament; exhausting manual labor and diligent study, especially geography.

As a young girl, she favored horses, dogs, turtles and snakes over dolls. She cared little for fashions, but socialized, engaged in pranks, plays, practical jokes and proved an effective matchmaker. Never one to remain silent she challenged adults when she observed injustice or impropriety. Her academic and parish achievements earned her a New York State Regents Scholarship and an unsolicited Diocesan offer of a full scholarship to the Catholic University of America in hopes that she would later work for the Rochester Diocese. Instead, she completed a year of nursing school as she waited for admission to the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters. In an effort to keep busy following her high school graduation, she single-handedly conducted the census for a new parish, exposing her to the need for missionaries in her own town.

During her years of religious training, Inez enjoyed a more complete participation in the liturgical life of the church. Along the way she practiced patience, a virtue that would support her for the rest of her life. She took the religious habit and the name Sister Theophane, SSpS, in honor of a recently beatified Vietnamese martyr and dreamed of her eventual departure for the foreign missions. Patiently she accepted an assignment to teach in the American home missions. The classroom proved more difficult for her, than she or her superiors imagined. They assigned Sr. Theophane to the completion of her nursing training and eventually she was asked to pack for work in Papua New Guinea, arriving there in 1935.

The photographs added to the original manuscript by the editor, Gregory J. Maier, one of her nephews, demonstrates how Inez emphatically embraced her role as missionary. Back straight, clothed in the traditional habit and veil, she sat upon a spirited horse or the seat of an outrigger canoe. She traveled hours to and from mission stations in every kind of tropical weather imaginable. She was often soaked from rain, river crossings, rough seas or sweat. She loved it. If the horse was afraid to cross a swollen, crocodile infested river, Sr. Theophane dismounted and led him across. She then led him back and remounted. Now that she had taught him not to fear, they crossed together.

She found that despite ceaseless and difficult labor, progress in the missions often proved elusive. Local customs and traditions, including a brutal indifference to the suffering of neighbors and even family members, challenged the imagination. Sr. Theophane remained focused and joyful. She would rejoice if after a difficult and dangerous journey she could bring a soul to the Lord, in the minutes before his or her death.

She demonstrates her attitude toward her calling in her description of a mission building:

“It’s a load of fun to live in such a weird house. The whole thing shakes at every step you take; all sorts of insect life enjoy the hospitality of the bush material, and funny little animals fall out of the roof quite often…. This is the life!”

She had fallen deeply in love. She loved her congregation, accepting every difficult, dirty and inconvenient assignment. When her Sisters came to the end of a difficult day, she helped them finish their tasks. When people at the mission stations needed medical assistance in the middle of the night, she gave up her sleep to ride horse-back in the rain or paddled over miles of open sea to reach them in time. Even as a prisoner in stifling hot solitary confinement, she amazed her Japanese captors with her ability to sing joyfully.

“She had always given herself entirely.” As she matured spiritually, “Her laugh was even more joyous…. Her strong soul had become mellow under the anvil of suffering. The beautiful work of the Lord, which she had tried so hard and successfully to hide, was shining through. Sister Theophane could no longer conceal the fact that she was constantly in communion with God.” Sister Theophane never grew old. She died in 1944, a victim of “friendly fire.” Her last words quoted the apostle Thomas, “My Lord and my God,” spoken as she reached toward the wound in her chest.

Through “Selfless,” the reader listens to Sister Theophane, often through quotations from her many letters and the testimony of her confreres within the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters.  You might say that she was just an ordinary nun. She founded no order, started no movement nor did she perform miraculous deeds. What made her so special was that she gave herself joyfully and completely through her love for God and for her neighbors, giving herself especially to those who had no previous opportunity to hear the gospel and see the good news in action. This book resonates with happiness, love and innocence. It might appeal to mature young adults looking for their mission in life and to persons of every age who seek happiness through collaboration with the Holy Spirit. An understanding of the mystery of Sr. Theophane’s devotion to her Lord and her God require prayer and reflection. I have been blessed to have received the opportunity to read “Selfless” and begin the process of internalizing its message. I recommend it to all.

(© 2013 Donald J. Mulcare)