In the opening of my Bio, I tell of an uncle’s farm and, though operated by an uncle—the brother of my father, it was the farm of a great uncle—the brother of my paternal grandmother. The property was part of what had been a much larger farm that suffered what so often happens to such acreages. They are divided among the heirs and then divided again and again and eventually sold when the resulting parcels become too small for anything approaching a real living.
Great Uncle Soren was born in Denmark as was my grandmother and when they were just kids, the family immigrated to America and crossed the country from New York to eastern Colorado in a covered wagon when buffalo still roamed the prairies.
I knew Uncle Soren as a curmudgeonly old fellow with an awkward gait who chewed tobacco, preferred Frank and Maud, his team of horses, for farm work over such things as tractors; bought a new pair of bib-overalls once a year, and seldom ever acknowledged the presence of us kids. On Sundays he would ride Frank in to the nearest small town for church and to collect his mail. He never married and lived alone in his part of the old farm house where he cooked his meals, collected feel-good stories from magazines like Readers Digest and played his favorite hymns on an ancient, squeaky violin before going to bed.
I know this—the collection of stories—because I came to be the owner of some of his belongings a half-dozen years ago and the stories were pasted in several old notebooks. Also among those memorabilia were yellowed and decaying newspaper clippings that told of his time as an elected county official, a photo of a young Soren, an article from 1914 saying that he had left for Europe having volunteered to fight in World War I and then a shorter, later statement, a notice really, that he had been seriously wounded.
It saddened me that I had known none of this before—that he was once young, that he was bright and involved and brave and full of tales that he would never tell and that now are lost forever.
When the treaty to end that war was signed at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the United States set aside “Armistice Day” as an annual holiday now known as “Veteran’s Day” and the awfulness of that war was diluted to something that celebrates all of us who have served in the military with free access to national parks and museums and a whole lot of furniture sales.
Elsewhere though, in Europe and the British Commonwealth, it is called “Remembrance Day” meant as a time to reflect on the horrors of war, the loss of loved ones and the assuredness of death. There is no celebration there.
But we do have “Memorial Day;” a holiday that began as a time in the spring when flowers could be collected to decorate the graves of all those who died in our own Civil War. But this has also been changed and now we decorate the graves of all of our fallen from all of our wars and we wear t-shirts with flags on them, watch a flyover by the National Guard and discard the ads for more furniture sales.
And so, for my friends Guy and Jim and Forrest and Larry, for my cousins Kenny and Keith, for my uncles Roy, Everett, Rizz, Ron, Clearance and Wesley, for my Great Grandfather Constantine, for my Great Great Uncle Joseph and for my Great Uncle Soren, let me leave you with the wisdom of some of our greatest warriors:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. – Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. – Gen. Omar N. Bradley
I have known war as few other men now living know it and nothing to me is more revolting. I have long advocated its complete abolition as its very destructiveness on both friend and foe has rendered it useless as a method of settling international disputes. – Gen. Douglass MacArthur
It is well that war is so terrible or we should grow too fond of it. – Gen. Robert E. Lee
War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children. – Pres. Jimmy Carter
Our chiefs are killed…the little children are freezing to death. My people…have no blankets, no food…my heart is sick and sad…I will fight no more forever. – Chief Joseph
During that Great War to End all Wars some of the most horrendous battles were fought in Belgium at a place called Flanders Fields—now the home of row after row of the graves of those who died there. Twenty-five of them are inscribed with the name of “Fenn.”