I have mixed feelings about Memorial Day. I do like honoring heroes, but I don’t like stuffed shirts puffing their vanity, speechifying about heroism when, if a cap gun went off, they themselves would scamper for the hills with their tails between their legs.
There was a legendary local character who had similar feelings, back when the Memorial Day Parade was a very big deal in this little town. Nearly everyone was either in the parade or watching it, but something about the spectacle simply rubbed this man’s fur the wrong way. Rather than joining the crowd he chose to do a very nasty spring chore. In those days before flush toilets someone had to clean the latrine, at the end of the long winter. (Away from town you could just dig a new hole, move your outhouse, and bury the old hole, but this was not possible in the middle of the village.) He would pitch all the crap into the back of a horse drawn wagon, wait until the parade passed his house, and then swing out onto the street at the rear of the parade. Therefore, year after year, the final wagon in the Memorial Day Parade was a wagon full of crap, reeking to high heavens, which sent the local population reeling for home. The fellow who drove it apparently wore an ear-to-ear grin, because he enjoyed making his point about officious and pompous arrogance. What is interesting to me is that year after year everyone put up with him, perhaps making a statement about allowing freedom of expression.
The parade has dwindled away in recent years, until now one is making more of a statement by being in the parade, or showing up to watch it, than by being busy elsewhere. I make a point of showing up, because it dismays me that fewer and fewer seem to really understand that “freedom isn’t free”.
I decided the best thing I can do is to do what others don’t. While they use a holiday as a time to enjoy the pleasures of Freedom, I decided to just spend some time meditating on the cost.
To some this might seem morbid, but my reply to them would be that it is sensible to think about what things cost. The superficial pleasure-seeker might have a grand old time during the holiday, maxing out credit cards, but a time does come when one must foot the bill. Even if one thinks they can rob the poor and live a life of luxury without facing consequences, the consequences are there, in terms of the make-up of ones psychology, the way peers regard one, and likely in other ways as well that I can’t think of, just now. These consequences are likely behind the idea of a “hell” we must face if we are bad, or the concept of “bad Karma” our selfish actions earn us, but of course a true scoundrel does not believe in hell or bad Karma. They are out for themselves, and the last thing they would ever do is sacrifice their flesh for anyone else. They would call that the action of a “sucker”, and their aim is to make all others be suckers, as they enjoy life as a suckee.
I’ve known a lot of suckee people in my time, and I hate to say this: Some of them were great fun. They had an irreverent attitude which in some ways epitomized the spirit of Freedom. However, over the passage of time, one by one, they came to bad ends, or else changed their attitude. If I had the skill of Shakespeare I could tell the tale of each, and make you weep as they faced the consequences they earned. However Shakespeare has already done that work, so I urge interested people to study his amazingly scientific study of mankind’s psychology (which makes Sigmund Freud look like a rank amateur, if not like a Shakespearean comic character.) I will simply state a simplified summery: In the end suckee people get what they deserve.
If you are young, you must simply trust me on this.
The same thing happens to suckee nations. Study history.
In a better world we each would make small daily sacrifices, and they would amount to payments for Freedom. About 95% of human suffering would be avoided, for things would never spin out of control and there would be no need for war. Sadly, things do spin out of control, as extremely suckee people think they can rip other people off, in one way or another, including killing off an entire race. In order to stop such horrors, a huge payment is required.
On June 6, 1944 the United States made a payment of roughly 3000 lives in a few hours. The lives lost were young men in their late teens and early twenties. Many sacrificed the chance to be a husband and the chance to hold a child of their own and watch it grow up. They wanted to go to a beach like you go to a beach, and sit on a towel with a babe, but they sacrificed on the shores of Normandy so you could go to a beach with someone you love, and enjoy what they never did.
The most hellish beach was Omaha Beach. As I recall, six companies functioned after they landed, and eighteen companies had ceased to function. A company was 200-250 men. Of Able Company, 2 men made it to the top of the cliff by the beach.
One rough winter I was down on my luck, and sought work standing in front of an unemployment office, hoping for spot labor. If I didn’t find work by ten o’clock I’d retreat to a warm public library , and read books. That library happened to have an amazing collection of books about World War Two, due to a lot of soldiers living in that area, and I read a number about D-day. They made me feel lucky. I was lucky to be able to stand in front of an unemployment office in bitter winds. I was lucky to be free, and to do what I wanted, and to spend all a winter’s day in a library if I chose. Dictators would have arranged my life differently, but I was a rambling man and bachelor in a free country, living a tough life as I chose to live it, because others died for me.
That winter was a game-changing experience for me, sitting in a winter Library and reading about Omaha Beach. I stopped feeling sorry for myself and started to understand how lucky I am. Others were not so lucky. They were only teenagers, when they died for me.
Most things you read about Omaha Beach focus on the guys who somehow survived and took the beach. They were undoubtedly heroes, especially as the “plan” was such a shambles they had to resort to the American attribute of thinking-for-yourself, and thinking outside-the-box, in order to be victorious. But the “plan” was reduced to a shambles by the military genius of Rommel’s defensive planning, and the situation was nearly a complete failure.
Omaha Beach was close to being like one of the completely foolish offences of World War One, where a lot of teenagers rushed across No Man’s Land, and every single one was mowed down by machine guns. It was a situation where nearly all the attackers were mowed down. The soldiers who made it across the slaughter on the beach were crowded at the foot of a cliff, unable to get up the roads away from the beach due to machine gun fire from German pillboxes. After struggling through surf and bullets many had no equipment; not even helmets.
Due to storm and currents, many had landed at the wrong part of the beach. Their commanding officers were dead. They had no idea where they were or where to go or where most of their unit was.
In the frantic scrambling of the moment the commanding officers, away from the beach on ships or in England, were even thinking of retreating, or at least diverting the reinforcements to the other landings. But with most of the radios lost, there was no way to tell the men.
Into this slaughter kept coming more and more men
The men on the scene who were not completely stunned realized that to sit was to die, so some dug a trench at the foot of the cliff, as others gathered what equipment they could and their nerve,
Then they went straight up the cliff, six stories tall. Meanwhile the Navy could see the slaughter going on, and destroyers came in so close they scraped bottom and, because they could see where the machine guns were because the Germans used tracer bullets, began blasting the pillboxes. None of this was according to plan. It was desperate men improvising for their lives. More and more troops moved out, up the cliffs and around to the rear of the pillboxes
At last, at the end of the day, they had a small enclave, but the beach was still such a complete chaos that downloading supplies had to be halted until the next day.
The one thing you read about, that there are no pictures of, are the appalling number of corpses along the shore. (Likely such pictures were repressed, to avoid depressing the public’s morale, but it must have been a frightening introduction for young soldiers).
With 20-20 hindsight it is possible to see mistakes, and speak of mismanagement, and perhaps even to learn to do better, if insanity is ever a necessity in the future. However 20-20 hindsight could also apply to the Germans. They could have done differently as well. The facts are: It was imperfect people battling imperfect people, hurling teenagers against teenagers. And the fact is: Omaha Beach was an American victory was because so many Americans were killed it kept the Germans busy, and they didn’t see the Rangers sneaking up behind. But the Rangers might not have succeeded if so many teenagers hadn’t died. Therefore the ones who died are part of the success.
It is no fun being part of such a “success”. We are too careless, when we write history, and skim over the hell those teenagers suffered. The water by the shore ran red with their blood. We should at least attempt to visualize what happened, if we are to be accurate historians.
In 1978 I spent a month with a German who had been a teenager in the German Army at the time of D-day. (Together we cared for his wife, who was in the country for cancer treatments.) He was captured inland of Omaha Beach and sent, as were many other prisoners in 1944, to work on a farm in the USA. In 1978 he was returning to the land which, compared to Nazi Germany, (and especially compared to the Russian Front) had seemed like heaven to him in 1944. One thing he couldn’t understand was why my generation complained so much.
I found it interesting to talk with a man who also could have died for his country, and to think about the difference between dying for freedom, and dying for a despot.
1978 was also the year Jim Jones saw his socialist experiment called the “People’s Temple Agricultural Project” move in the direction of many such experients: Total failure. At the time the media didn’t like to point out Jim Jones was an admirer of North Korea, and of the old Soviet Union, but rather characterized him as “religious” person. There was enough concern that Jim Jones might be a despot who was bullying people in his commune that Congressman Leo Ryan decided to travel to Guyana, where the commune was located.
Leo Ryan was aware he was visiting a microcosm of a communist dictatorship, and was being shown a sort of display of how wonderful everything was. (The leaders held “practices” of the “typical gathering” that Ryan was to witness, before he came.) Like politicians do, he was polite and flattering, but had taken steps to care for any who wanted to leave the commune. There were even Army pediatric units on stand by, for the children. The people who did want to leave were called “defectors.”
Congressman Ryan attempted to be soothing, but apparently Jim Jones doubted the man’s sincerity, and felt, on some level, the end of his commune was near. A commune member tried to knife the congressman, but Ryan was understanding about the “misunderstanding”, and continued to talk soothingly, and made it to the airport, but there he was gunned down. There then followed the largest murder-suicide in the history of the United States, involving over 900 people, including many woman and children.
Judging from audio tapes of screaming women, and other evidence, not all of the poisoned people wanted to die. However many were so controlled by the leadership of Jim Jones that they did commit suicide at his command.
We now have the wry expression “don’t drink the Koolaid” when it comes to believing leaders, (especially socialist leaders), but I don’t think people understand what a blow this was to the self-confidence of my generation. Many of us had tried out communes and investigated religions that were different from our parent’s beliefs, but now we suddenly worried about the dangers of being brainwashed, and being swept up by the madness of a cult.
The one thing I noticed even at the time, (when I myself was very liberal), was the way the media fled from reporting Jim Jones was a socialist, and was even, earlier in his life, a darling of California “free-thinkers.”
There is a huge difference between dying for freedom and dying for a despot. It is something we need to seriously think about, and discuss. I could go on for pages about the distinctions that need to be made, but won’t.
I will simply say that free people are free to lose their freedom, if that is what they want. After all, Hitler was elected. However I have enjoyed living in a free land, even when it involved times sleeping in my car. I enjoy having the right to read books that tell the truth, even when truth involves admissions of failures (sometimes politely called “shortcomings”, or more brutally called “sins”). I am very glad of the donated books in a public Library I sat in, when the weather was cold and I was homeless, that taught me of D-day.
It is one thing to sleep in your car and whine and gripe about a lack of jobs, and grump about the government, but it is quite another to lose your right to be a drifter, your right to chose the sacrifices you make for your own particular brand of freedom. Poets starve because they chose to be poets, when they could have become bankers. They are free, and poetry is the product of their freedom. Other quasi-poetry, cranked out by the demand of despots, is suckee poetry. True poetry doesn’t speak what you are “suppose” to say (or else). True poetry utilizes what might be one of the most important freedom’s; the freedom to speak your heart.
If you open your eyes you will start to see there are people all around you who chose to not be suckee, and instead to sacrifice. Even a parent you have long griped about may not be all bad, and if you look you may see they too sacrificed. Even a drunk on the sidewalk may have sacrificed, and may be drunk because his sacrifice was disdained.
After years on the road I at long last settled down, but never stopped chatting with people as if I were a drifter-hitchhiker getting to know a driver, on a five-hundred-mile drive. In 1988 I joined a small church choir, (not because I was seeking a church but because I like four-part-harmony), and, in getting to know the men in the choir, eventually discovered one had been shot through the chest on Omaha Beach, a second had been in the Battle of the Bulge, and a third had been a pediatric nurse backing up Congressman Leo Ryan, and later had to put all the dead little children into body bags, in the steaming, stinking heat of Guyana. Sometimes it amazed me such men could have seen and sacrificed so much, and still sing for joy.
A fourth man I met was the brother-in-law of the choir director, and I did not meet him until September 9, 2001, when he stopped by our church on his way to a vacation on Yosemite. Though retired, Don Peterson ran a church program for men with substance-abuse problems, as his wife Jean ran a program for unwed mothers. They seemed very nice folk. Two days later they were on flight 93 when Todd Beamer said, “Let’s Roll.”
Flight 93 was 20 minutes away from the White House and US Capital Building (likely targets) when the passengers attacked the terrorists and the jet crashed.When the passengers boarded that jet they didn’t expect to sacrifice their lives for their country. You never know what today will bring, or whether the sacrifices you make will be small or the final one. (I wish some of the people in the US Capital Building were less focused on suckee things, and had a greater appreciation of the people they represent, who actually saved and still save their lives ).
One of the oddest things about flight 93 was that, though the fight recorder was buried 25 feet underground and every human body was reduced to bits and shreds smaller than walnuts, a Bible survived and lay unscorched, its pages moving in the wind, in the crater. It was Don Peterson’s Bible. I felt a strange sense of brotherhood with the departed, knowing we’d been at the same church 48 hours before his time came.
I hope those that sacrifice their lives for freedom find a freedom we can’t even imagine as a reward, but that is something I can’t know. All I know is that we should remember them.