Tuesday, March 27, 2007

It is sweet and decorous to die for ones country

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

Wilfred Owen, 1918 (after Horace)

My grandfather was in France, slogging through muddy trenches, fumbling with his own gas mask, and ultimately being wounded by a German bullet and left for dead around the time Wilfred Owen wrote his decidedly anti-war poem. He was recuperating in England when Owen was killed by German machine gun fire one week before the armistice.

I didn’t know my grandfather well. He was the tall old man with the stiff leg (from the German bullet) that still, 60 years later, would expel puss from time to time, who spoke little but did everything. He didn’t talk much about the great war. Once, when my grandparents were visiting, my brother and I had our toy soldiers ranged across the family room floor. Pap-pap sat near by, watching. After a while, he reached down and moved our tank, which was behind the infantry, to the front. “You always follow your armor,” he told us. I’m sure he had learned more, seen more, experienced more, but that’s all the wisdom about war he chose to impart to his young grandsons.

I often wonder what Pap-pap thought about the necessity of war. Being a man of few words, he wasn’t one to make grand statements or protests. We have a letter to the editor he once wrote, scolding those who illegally parked in handicap spaces around his small town in northern California. He had the credentials to make such a complaint. Beyond that, he lived more than talked. I get the feeling he wanted to leave the horror of war behind.

He was told many times that he was a dead man. At the field hospital in France, the doctors triaged him to the back of the line. He had lost a lot of blood, and seemed a hopeless case. They were surprised to find him still alive later in the day. When he was shipped back to England, he weighed about 90 pounds. He was six feet tall. He wasn’t expected to make it back to America. At home during the depression, the doctors found spots on a chest X-ray: TB. He went away to the mountains near Donegal, Pennsylvania to breath clean air and to die. It turns out what they saw on his lungs were mustard gas scars. I would imagine such things bring existence into clearer perspective.

He didn’t join the Bonus Army’s march on Washington. Instead, he took care of his growing family in western Pennsylvania. He was laid off from Westinghouse during the depression, worked odd jobs and for various relief agenciessix years, was eventually picked up again at Westinghouse and worked there until he retired. Then, in 1960, he started a second life in California, where he and my grandma (and a number of my aunts and uncles) ran a restaurant / gas station / Greyhound Bus stop at Patway Village along U.S. 395. He built a house, drilled wells, laid in an irrigation system and a septic tank, built a garage from the timbers of an old barn. I have fond memories of visiting there, the smell of sage brush and pine trees and my grandmother’s petunias, the fresh strawberries and peas and apricots.

My grandfather didn’t die for his country. Instead, he lived for his country. And for his family. Perhaps it is sweet and decorous to die for one’s family, or perhaps even for ones country. I don’t wish to make light of the experiences of the men and women in the U.S. armed forces, both living and dead, and the sacrifices they have made, because I truly believe it is a noble thing to lay down ones life for another, or for a noble cause. But it seems to me that, as my grandfather did, it is far superior to live for ones country and family.

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