May 29, 2000
Well, it’s Memorial Day, which either means you should remember those who gave their lives for this country or get out there and be really patriotic as you shop ‘til you drop.
Isn’t this the only holiday you wish we didn’t have to celebrate? Isn’t it worth dreaming that someday there will be a generation for whom war is such a distant memory that there is no reason to commemorate it?
I can’t argue that war isn’t part of the human condition; even now, barbarism plagues parts of the world. So, honoring those who have given their lives in war seems the right thing to do. I tend to use this day to think with compassion about all who have given their lives, especially all of those kids.
Can you forgive the German kid who fought in both World Wars, the Korean kids who died in Inchon, the Vietnamese kids who died in the battle of Hue? I can. They were all just children fighting for what they believed was right or fighting because the war propaganda machines told them to or fighting just because they were conscripted. History decides which was which. Perhaps if we can find compassion, at least for the soldiers who once were our enemies, we can learn compassion for our enemies now, and perhaps that can mitigate the possibility of more wars. It’s worth a try, don’t you think?
I have a favorite story about an old soldier — a hero of mine. A man who learned, in his own private way, the lessons of war.
This story comes to my mind every Memorial Day.
It was Thanksgiving 1966. At that time, I was a civil rights worker and antiwar activist. I was mostly an antiwar activist because the war in Vietnam had somehow managed to become even more egregious and more horrible than the war against blacks in this country. Also, the war was being fought mostly by those same people who still could not vote in the Deep South. In those days, I was based out of Norman, Oklahoma, where I had been a student before quitting to become a full-time activist. Being a student seemed kind of irrelevant in those days. As a matter of fact, the only relevance college had for many of my friends was the student deferment that it gave them to protect them from being drafted. This was one reason why the war was fought mostly by the poor.
My best friend, Jody Bateman, and I had hitchhiked several hundred miles from Norman to Columbia, Missouri, for a regional SDS (Students For a Democratic Society) conference at the University of Missouri. In places like the southwest, where fear ruled my life, getting together with other radicals was a real morale builder. When Jody and I left Norman, the weather was moderate and we wanted to travel light, so we did not bring heavy coats. We left with exactly one quarter between us, and as people in those days often did, we counted on the kindness of strangers to get by. This was before the term “hippie” was coined, so to most folks, Jody and I probably looked more like a couple of pretty ragged bums — or maybe communists. But even in Oklahoma and Missouri during those years, there were strangers who offered the little kindnesses it took to get by.
After the conference — keep in mind that this was late November — Jody and I started the trip home. We walked out of Columbia and hit the road, thumbs out. It was colder than when we started, a lot colder. I don’t remember the first ride we got, but he dropped us off at the edge of a town. Next came one of the most hilarious trips of my life.
An old Dodge stopped and picked us up. Stuffed inside were six women. I wish I could say they were all beautiful, but at best, they were just kind of plain. They invited us to jump in and soon, Jody and I were sitting kind of across the laps of the three gals in the back of the car, who couldn’t stop giggling. Very quickly, we learned that our hostesses were the town’s entire complement of hookers. They didn’t come on to us; it was pretty obvious that neither of us could have afforded one minute with even the homeliest of the group. But we sure did have fun. They joked with us, we joked with them. We were having so much fun that we just drove around town for awhile. The car was warm — warm from the heater and warm from the open hearts of six small-town hookers.
The best they could do was drop us off at the edge of town near a road that would, at some point, take us to the interstate that would get us home. So there Jody and I are, on this two-lane blacktop stretching to the horizon, on a prairie as flat as the slate on a pool table. There were no cars, so we just started to hoof it.
I learned a little trick back in those days to keep from getting overwhelmed with things like how far away the horizon seemed to be. I learned to measure the small successes. So instead of thinking “My God, we may have to walk forever,” I’d instead say to myself “Well, now I’m just walking to that third telephone pole.” When I got to that one, I’d do it again. Time goes by easier that way, and the mind is more at rest.
As we walked, a small kitten started following us. Nothing we did could scare it away. Eventually, Jody just picked it up and carried it. The weather was very cold, and the kitten was clearly unhappy. After several hours and with the sun going down, we finally made it to the interstate. We climbed the embankment and started hitching. Every time a truck came by, the wind it created would whip against us — it cut like a knife. But nobody was stopping; we just had to keep walking. The weather was just downright ugly, and I reckon that ugly weather affects the mood.
Soon, it was just too cold, so Jody and I went down into a roadside ditch that protected us some from the cold. We wrapped our arms around each other (this was in the days when guys could do that and not get paranoid about the other guy being gay) and put the little shivering kitten in between us to keep it warm.
We woke with the break of dawn. The night had been so cold that my feet had swollen and burst my shoelaces. The kitten was barely breathing. We climbed up the embankment to the highway and saw a small town in the distance. The town looked warm.
We started walking toward the town. It was a very small town, with maybe one traffic light and a dirt road that served as Main Street. Finally, we got to a cafe and I told Jody to go inside and get a bit of milk for the kitten. He did and came out with a quart of milk, which meant he had just gone and spent our entire bankroll. Jody was like that, and I couldn’t get angry about it. We tried to feed the kitten, but the little thing just died right there in our hands. The best we could do was put it in a trashcan. At least we had the milk — it was our first nourishment in two days.
We decided to see if there was a way to wire a friend in Norman for some bus money. Some folks in town directed us to the town’s telegraph office, which was a small shack along the railroad tracks. It had a chimney and there was smoke coming out. Finally, we could get some warmth.
We knocked and a voice said, “Come on in.”
We did and setting next to an old wood stove was an equally old man; he was gaunt, with a day or two worth of beard and bright eyes. He was shelling pecans. He invited us to “set down and get warm.” He introduced himself as Mr. Bradshaw.
We explained what we needed, but the old man told us it would be kind of difficult. For one thing, he could not send a telegram without payment. And even if he could, it would take a least a day for the wire to be routed back and forth.
So we just sat there and talked. I noticed a lot of pictures on the wall. One of them was a black and white of a handsome, smiling young man in a pilot’s uniform. He was standing next to a jet plane. I asked Mr. Bradshaw who was in the picture. With a deep sadness in his eyes, the old man told me that it was a picture of his son, who had been shot down and killed during the Korean War.
We talked about that, and then Mr. Bradshaw told us his story. He had grown up in Brahmen — the town that we had happened upon. At the beginning of the First World War, he and his best friend volunteered for the infantry. They then spent more than a year engaging in trench warfare in France, watching their comrades die like flies. That was the term Mr. Bradshaw used — “died like flies.” Somehow, he and his pal survived the war. The Army discharged them in New York City. From there, the boys hopped freights to get back home to Oklahoma. During the trip, his best friend got sick and developed pneumonia. There was nothing Mr. Bradshaw could do for him but hold him in his arms. He died about 200 miles short of home. Mr. Bradshaw held him until the train finally rolled into Brahmen.
As he told the story, he just kept shelling those pecans.
Then he looked at us; dirty, ragged clothes and all, and said “I can trust you boys, come with me.” Next thing we knew, we had followed him across the street and entered the town’s one small bank. Mr. Bradshaw introduced, and I could tell everyone had a special fondness for this old man.
Then he withdrew $10 and wrote something on a piece of paper. When we got outside, he gave it to me. On the piece of paper was his address. He told us where and when to catch the bus to Oklahoma City, and then he gave me the ten dollars, saying that he knew we’d return the loan when we could. Jody and I got home that night, and the next day I mailed Mr. Bradshaw ten dollars.
Something had taught this man from a tiny isolated town with an unpaved Main Street compassion, tolerance and faith in other human beings. Maybe, just maybe, it was his experience with the horrors of war. We never talked about it. I sent him a Christmas card every year for a long time. No doubt, Mr. Bradshaw has been dead for a long time now.
On this Memorial Day, may God bless you, Mr. Bradshaw. I’ve never forgotten the blessing you bestowed on me, sir.