One of my most enjoyable activities while stationed in France with the US Army in the late 1950’s was participating in a Little Theater group. I played deputy File in “The Rainmaker.” We did so well with that production that we were offered an opportunity to travel to other BASEC Command posts with our next play, “The Hasty Heart.”
This story was set in a British military hospital in the Burmese jungle toward the end of WWII. A group of Allied soldiers had been there long enough to develop a strong bond. They felt challenged when a new patient, a Scot named Lachie, arrived. He seemed to be a picture of health, oblivious to the reality that sudden death from kidney failure loomed over him. The story revolved around the group bonding with Lachie only to have him lash out at them later when he learned he was dying. I played the role of the hospital doctor, Lt. Col. Dunn, who had to tell Lachie the truth about his condition.
Our cast included nine men and a woman who got to know each other as we traveled and worked together. One man especially stands out in my memory. His name was John, and he was an Englishman who fittingly played a British soldier. He told us about being orphaned as a child during the German Blitzkrieg. We felt with him the fear that had surged through his body every time air raid sirens sounded, and the earth quaked under bombardment. John revealed some of the emotional baggage he still carried. He also talked about the positive ways strangers in the shelters helped him cope when his parents died. When I knew him, John was serving in the United States Army to search out who he was and where he “belonged.” It was a search for peace and hope in the “new normal” of the postwar world.
I have traveled to Britain twice in my life. The first time as a GI on leave, short on money, looking for a way to get through five days until my prepaid flight back to France. The challenge was to stretch twenty dollars to cover meals and lodging while I took in the city of London and its culture. On the train from the airport I shared my dilemma with a member of the Scots Guards who gave me tips on places I should see. One of those was Queen Elizabeth’s birthday parade at Buckingham Palace. He also took me with him to the Union Jack, a British serviceman’s club where I got a room with a hot bath and one meal a day for sixty-five cents a night. I learned the Brits have an expression they use when facing a tough challenge. They say, “Press on.”
That phrase seems tailor-made for all of us in these days during the Coronavirus Pandemic. Frequently I have heard references to World War II as people react to the current upheaval that has turned our everyday life upside down. Thankfully, we’re not dodging Blitzkrieg bombs, but we distance ourselves from others, wear face masks, constantly wash our hands, and use sanitizers to prevent the spread of an illness that kills as surely as bombs falling from the sky.
Millions among us have lost jobs and incomes overnight. Businesses have closed from coast to coast, many unable to rebound. Fear is drilled into us daily by non-stop news speculations, and political reactivity. Dedicated health care providers in overcrowded hospitals endure the pressure of long, grueling hours, and constant losses among their patients. Combined with it all is the daily struggle to find essential, but often scarce, supplies. We want to somehow normalize life and feel ourselves standing on solid ground again.
During these months I have thought back to John, a frightened child in a war-torn city, struggling as an adult to make sense out of the imponderable. As a child he learned to “press on.” He was still doing it during our Little Theater days. Nowadays I feel a fresh bond with him as “pressing on” becomes my own reality.
In “The Hasty Heart,” a group of men had their comfort zone threatened by the arrival of a brash Scottish soldier. Tension ensued, then eased, only to be refueled later when he felt the group had betrayed him with false friendship. It was an act of kindness from one of the men, a Burmese native who could not speak English, that softened the Scot’s heart. Somehow that crew pressed on, learning to embrace someone they’d once feared and denied. The play ended with Lachie joining the others in a group photograph, symbolic of the transcendent bond that prevailed despite the pressures threatening to unravel it.
In this day of the COVID-19 virus, we each face the need to “press on,” resisting the corrupting power of fear. We need to bond with each other beyond the level of divisive rhetoric so we can affirm hope through a shared belief that the last word is one of Goodness from the soul of our Creator.
Goodness does prevail. To find it we must, despite all forces to the contrary, grow together in the power of love, trust, faith and hope.