Monday, November 11, 2013

A Pocket Full of God

A rare repost, from two years ago, but it is a summation of the way I feel about our veterans, and about one veteran in particular, my great uncle. 

I knew a man from South Jersey. He was the sweetest, most lovable old fellow you would ever want to meet. He'd been a welder who built great ships, but an accident had rendered his leg lame. Still, he could always be seen walking the main road in his town, usually with frequent stops to talk to every one who know him -- which was, really, everyone. He was my Great Uncle Vince.

He had been a soldier in World War II. In fact, he had been in the D-Day landing. Sometimes, he would tell me stories, cautioning me not to tell my mother -- he feared she would be shaken up by the details. But I think he believed that every little boy should know a little of what war was. Maybe he was right.

In short, if you ever saw the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, you got the truth. The stories my Uncle Vince told me matched that opening in such detail, I would have placed a bet that Spielberg had interviewed my uncle, though he had died many years before the film was made.

But the best story I ever heard was this:

The transport hit the beach, and Uncle Vince could remember his pulse in his ears, louder even that the big guns thumping from the cliffs. He looked over the helmets of his fellow soldiers and saw bodies in the sand -- some moving, some still -- hunkering down under the little mounds that they had made in an attempt to avoid the fire from above.When he surveyed his companions, he saw some praying, and heard some cursing with religious fervor. Some of the boys stood close, but all of them clutched their rifles as if they'd die for dropping them -- which, in the end, might have been true.

The transport crunched into the bottom and they all lurched forward. A command was barked, the door dropped with a metallic slam, and a bullet flew in before even three or four of them had plunged a boot into the surf. Someone fell dead right next to my uncle, hugging him as he fell. He'd been a friend.

Soon, Uncle Vince, the someday welder, husband and dad from New Jersey, barely twenty-years-old and not more than five-feet eight inches tall, found himself running, against every instinct and fueled by desire to keep his family and friends at home safe, toward enemy fire, through a rain of bullets.

When he found himself even with a line of fellow soldiers, he hit the dirt and started, as they all were, to furiously scratch out a hole with his spade. Digging, he prayed: "God, if I'm going to make it through this, please, give me a sign. Anything . . ." At that precise second, his shovel hit something that clinked and shone. He picked it up. It was a Roman coin. "Thank you," he said kissing it.

He was never afraid again. Ever.

That coin went into his pocket and remained there until Uncle Vince came home. A happy, non-violent man made made it through the heart of violence.

He was a hero because he represented what simple men can be in the face of horror. He was a hero because he had strength that could only be proven when it was tested and he was a hero because, despite the horrors he must have seen, he carried on and never, to my knowledge, burdened his loved ones with what must have been nightmarish memories. (I'm sure, as powerful as his stories, were, I only got the PG-13 versions.) And beyond all of that, he demanded no credit for having been one of the heroes of what some have called the greatest of all American generations.

God bless the soldiers for rising to what men can be. God damn war for tearing some of them down.

Here's the song, "Galveston," by Jimmy Webb. To me, the profundity of war lies in the common man -- the everyday fellow who carries God in his pocket straight through Hell. And it's also in the guy, as in this song, who simply wants to get home to his girl -- the man who watches "the canon flashing" as he cleans his gun and dreams of home:

Rest well, Uncle Vince. I was listening. Thank you.

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