PRESS ON

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.

Press on.

Fantasy Squadron

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As Veteran’s Day approaches, I remember my late “Uncle Shorty.” When the United States entered World War II, he answered his country’s call to military service. After basic training, the Army sent him to Officer’s Candidate School. Ninety days later he emerged as a second lieutenant preparing to ship out to the Pacific where he would lead an infantry platoon into some zone of hell he had yet to imagine.

Just as he stepped off the gangplank onto a troopship, he received new orders to report to the Pentagon where he spent the rest of the war writing training manuals. He finished with the rank of captain. I had another uncle who fought in North Africa, and another who served in the merchant marine service, but I didn’t see them much. Uncle Shorty was more visible because he served in the States and came home on furlough frequently.

So, Uncle Shorty wasn’t a war hero–but he was my hero. When I asked what he was doing to win the war, he would tell me he was “squirting ink” at the enemy. I was only eight when the war ended, so my imagination was fired up about what he must have been doing. By the way, his name wasn’t really “Shorty”–it was Elmer, after his father, but he didn’t like that name, so he went by “Bud.” I called him Uncle Shorty because he always called me “Shorty.” It was just a little transfer of identity between us.

After the war, many kid’s dads in my Cincinnati neighborhood came home and gave some of their military paraphernalia, such as sergeant’s stripes or a lieutenant’s bar, to their kids. During recess at Clifton School, we boys would spread our arms as though wings of an airplane, then run around the schoolyard like a fantasy squadron in combat. We would say “rat-a-tat-tat” in pretend dog fights shooting each other down. The kid whose dad had the highest rank was the squadron leader.

Now, my dad wasn’t in the military during the war. He was a supervisor on an assembly line at the Curtiss-Wright aircraft plant. We lived in Blue Ash just outside Cincinnati where there was a small airport whose runway ended behind our house.

I recall the scream when one of the Helldivers did demonstration dives at the airport, and another time when they brought in a B-25 bomber for a demonstration. It seemed like the pilot taxied almost into our back yard, then turned the plane, held it with his brakes while revving the engines to full throttle before thundering down the runway and into the air. I can still remember how the ground shook with the vibration of those revved-up twin engines.

By the time the war ended, we had moved back into the city, which is how I came to attend Clifton School. I soon found I had a problem with the squadrons in the schoolyard. Since my dad hadn’t been in the military, I had no rank insignia, so I was excluded from the flying aces during recess–that is until I talked to Uncle Shorty. Being a pretty quick study, he picked up on the problem right away.

Soon afterward he sent me a gift, an Army garrison cap with captain’s bars. Wearing that insignia on the school playground the next day gave me a chance to lead a fantasy squadron of my own.