Once only, years ago on a Memorial Day, I spoke these words to the Boy Scouts in my charge. I had memorized it in the weeks before:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
New Scouts sort of squinted into the distance, not knowing what to make of me. Scouts who knew better glanced sidelong my way and then at each other, then poked at the ground with sticks or picked at threads on their uniform patches. They knew this, too, would pass.
Everything I knew about being a Scoutmaster I learned from Normal Rockwell paintings.
Oh, I got all the whats and whens of being an adult Scout leader in training and readings, but we're on our own for the whys, for the space in between the cooking and hiking, the tangible manifestations of Scouting.
That, I suppose, is left up to each adult and what he or she may contribute to the assembled Troop. What I contributed was well-meaning ardor, some imitation of an adult leader with no experience as a Scout and little outward evidence of ever having been a boy.
So I decided, somehow, my role was to help with the intangibles, the ideals, the higher plane and all that. In my time as Scoutmaster I had quoted Shakespeare, and from the journals of Meriwether Lewis. It was obvious to all that these words did not come effortlessly, as if from a lifelong reader collecting words as treasures, loosing them at the right moment.
I was learning all this stuff shortly before I was trying to teach it.
And what I was trying to teach by reciting "In Flanders Field," by Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian surgeon (published 99 years ago) was … what?
I don't know. I didn't then. Something about patriotism and sacrifice. At the least, I wanted to create a space in the day to consider the solemn chill of those words, written to commemorate the death of a friend in the Second Battle of Ypres in World War I.
We had gathered the boys for a "Scouts' Own," a time for reflection. Scouting in my time as a leader was heavy on reflection, on looking back on the tangibles and how we all felt, what worked, what didn't.
"Scouts' Own" is sometimes confused with a church service, but it really shouldn't be. It was rare in our Troop, convened only at summer camp and on three-day campouts, themselves rare. Memorial Day weekend was always bittersweet: Three days free to camp, but few Scouts free to participate. Over-involved Scouts and their families usually didn't want to give up the weekend.
This Memorial Day campout was different for some reason. Most of the Troop could come. We arranged with park rangers for a service project to clean up trash (and, for some reason, dead birds) from two miles of beach. Patrols could govern and cook and clean and caterwaul among their own, rather than coping awkwardly with a small mishmash of Scouts from different Patrols, which was the norm.
And we could have a Scouts' Own, which meant the Troop had to put up with me and my earnest impositions.
Gestures of patriotism affected me deeply as a kid: Standing for the national anthem before the movie played at the Air Force Base theater … the rare moments watching my dad salute. I guess I wanted to pay forward my feelings at their age.
The best gesture we could have managed as a Troop would have been to volunteer our time planting flags at veterans' graves, giving each Scout a moment for himself, and whatever he may regard of his time before the name of each of the fallen. But we never could organize a sufficient number of Scouts to participate.
I was only trying to uphold meaning for the day, a day of remembrance and service, and not of shopping. Nor politics. Nor even patriotism, especially as a synonym for jingoism. An ideal that is supposed to make the United States special is the freedom to question our representatives, to counter status quo. I fear it's a freedom we forsake, or that it's drowning in sound and money.
(I speak only as a citizen who has never served in the armed service, who knows nothing of it, or of war, only the freedom to have chosen not to serve.)
We should fight as we truly need as a country, but we should also question our wars. We should exercise our right to petition government and challenge actions on our behalf.
But we should always love the warrior, going for us, going in our stead, no matter the war.
Warriors are fewer and fewer, and we are loving them less. Only 13 percent of the U.S. population are veterans. Fewer than 1 percent are active personnel.
I admit to hating our suspicious wars in Iraq and the war that goes on in Afghanistan, and I'm guilty of letting hate turn into frustration and indifference. I could never do enough for those who serve, but I don't do near enough in trying.
No matter what, though, those who serve deserve whatever we as a nation can give, as soon as it's needed. It is a lowly crime that veterans and their families must work so hard to get the aid that should be accorded them on demand. It is the lowliest of crimes that our Congress — and by extension, we — have cut veterans' benefits, mainly because we can. As the percentage of our veterans dwindles — as we become detached from our veterans as a population — so does their voice and force in protest, and their power to vote for the other candidate.
Our help to veterans should be sacrosanct, untouched by our vile politics. It should be immediate and the best available.
(Yeah, it's more of a Veterans' Day post, but it's on my mind now and I can't shake it).
Nor can I shake this from childhood, a poem by Randall Jarrell from a school anthology that I read mostly because it's short. Its brevity of horrible necessity — for us, for me — burned into memory:
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.