Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Howard Vincent O’Brien: March 23, 1944—A Telegram from the War Department

[The long dead, long forgotten columnist for the Chicago Daily News records his feelings when the telegram came, a column that ricocheted across the country during an era when we were all bonded closely in World War II. Oops, there’s one more column to follow, making it four.]

There is a line of Walt Whitman’s—something about life being a matter of surmounting one hill, only to find another in the way. I have found this to be true. But I have also found that with each hill climbed there is a new vista, a broader horizon.

One who gets that red-starred telegram: The Secretary of War desires to express his deep regret…is plunged into the Valley of the Shadow.

You can brace yourself for that message. You can, in a way, be ready. But it rocks you. It takes you off your feet no matter how firmly they have been planted against it.

But there is work to be done. The show has to go on. You have to laugh—and be laughed at. The boy who joined the clouds would scorn you if you altered your course or turned your back. He didn’t.

So you carry on. You start climbing the next hill. And then you find something you weren’t prepared for. Your pain eases. You see a strange brightness in the sky. Warmth creeps through your chilled heart. It is not the numbness of resignation. It is an active sense of well-being.

Suddenly you realize what has happened. It is the letters. They come from close friends and from old but distant ones; from those hou had thought indifferent or hostile; from strangers and from people who signed no names; from the great and from the humble.

This fragrant bloom of sympathy—and you recall the Greek root of this word: “suffering-with”—fills you with awe.

In one letter was a phrase to remember: “God knows no accdents.” As earthlings, it is hard for us to grasp this. Wailing, we plead with the empty heavens to answer a querulous, self-pitying “Why?”

It is not for us to know the plan and purpose of things. We cannot measure what we get in exchange for our blood and tears. We can only “wonder what the vintners buy one half so precious as the stuff they sell.”

We cannot balance the sweet against the bitter, but those out-stretched hands of compassion are proof that there is a balance. If war reveals the beast in the man, it also reveals the angel. In the depths of the valley one can best see the sun on the hilltop. Under the thorns of hate one finds the blossoms of love. In the last grim climax of strife, one achieves peace. Tangled with brutality and chaos one comes upon kindness and affection.

You pay high for what you learn from that War Department telegram. The new light hurts your eyes. But the letters that come afterward—they are worth the cost.

Telegrams coming to German homes, too—and letters afterward. German boys are melting into mist and those who loved them search the flaming skies for answer to the riddle.

Is there an answer? Well, there is faith and hope and in the centuries yet unborn, more charity. And there is that flood of gentle sympathy, sign and portent man is climbing slowly toward the stars. In the hot fire of sorrow shared, the dross of despair is burned away.

More boy will grow to strength and beauty, only to wink out like sparks in the night. More bubbles form and glow and vanish whence they came.

Their memorial is the deep-buried spring of goodness uncovered by their passing.

[Excellent, but the masterpiece is yet to follow—one that brought national recognition and a response from President Roosevelt. For now—who among today’s Chicago journalists has the depth to match O’Brien’s sweet resignation in the majesty of God? I can think of only one candidate. Think about it—and respond, if you wish, especially after you read the final offering that shook the nation once more.]

No comments:

Post a Comment