Sunday, January 27, 2008

People Are So Interesting - Part two in a series. People and People

You may have heard this story. I guarantee you I heard it before you did.

In December of 1917 the war in Europe had reached a stalemate. The lines had been drawn, trenches dug deep, and by Christmas eve only an occasional shot was being fired – just to remind each side that the other was still there.

Hunkered down in one of those trenches was a farmer from Michigan, young and frightened. He was a new member of MacArthur’s 40 and 8 (At the time, a boxcar held 40 men and 8 horses.) He was a member of the rainbow division – a shoulder patch of red, brown, and green colors. “Through the blood and the mud to the green fields beyond.” Yeah. It was that kind of war.

By early evening of December 24th, the snow had stopped, leaving a clean carpet of white between the two lines of battle, perhaps the length of two football fields apart. Around the young farmer there was talk of Christmas ‘back home,” and what this or that relative might be doing.

From somewhere down the line, someone started singing a Christmas carol. Soon a number of other voices had joined in.

It was then that someone started singing “Silent Night.”

It was then that they heard the sound of the pure tenor voice, drifting across the battlefield. One of the Germans was singing with them.

Soon both sides were singing with great gusto. Language became no barrier at all. Lah lah lah worked just fine.

In the dimming lights the Michigan farmer found himself, among others, standing and moving cautiously into the no man’s land. He was met by an equally nervous contingent from the other side. Everyone was singing. Eventually they exchanged gifts – cigarettes, beer, and sausage.

They stood together in comradeship for perhaps a half an hour. Eventually, in unspoken agreement, they parted, returning almost regretfully to their own sides.

The next day, Christmas day, they resumed shooting at each other. Business as usual.

Have you heard that story? I’ve been told that it’s fairly well known.

But that’s not the end of the story.

The shooting stopped on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – November 11, 1918. The surrender had been signed a number of hours earlier, and everyone should have been packing kit bags, in preparation for a return home.

Instead, that final day was a period of madness, with both sides attacking each other with a fury that had no reason. Both sides knew they were fighting over territory neither would occupy in just a few hours.

Thousands died that day, and for no reason. At least, there was no good reason the farmer from Michigan could understand. How could there be peace in a time of war, and war where there should be peace?

45 years later an old retired farmer told that story to a quite young but enthralled nephew. With blistered and gnarled hands the old man placed a faded red, brown, and green shoulder patch in the young child’s outstretched hands.

As I’m typing this, I’m looking at that patch.


Q said...

Hi Jack (something I never say at airports anymore since...well..the "incident"..)

I read all your posts and I do so enjoy your writing. I have always been a good technical writer (school, work, complaint letters) but I haven't done any creative writing or "reality" bits since maybe highschool. It is something I think I want to do more of, now that I have so much time on my hands (you know, not having a husband anymore and all).

Thank you for reading and commenting on my posts, I am honoured. And motivated; I will try to write more. As for me, I live about 3.5 hrs from Vancouver BC, in a medium-ish town. Lived in Vancouver for a long time, going to University, my fun-loving 20's and 30's. Then got serious, bought a house, got married, took on a management position and moved back to my hometown. I go to Vanc as often as possible, great city, and my best friends live there. I love TV--documentaries, news shows, House, Law & Order, British comedies, Frasier. I like a lot of British dramas--Prime Suspect is a fave. As for Milan Kundera, he is very political in his writings, and he did a lot of them in French, his second language. So to have them then translated into English, I'm sure something is lost, but I do like him. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is his most popular work I guess, I would recommend The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Sadly, I read too many self-help and psychology books, not enough fiction. What do you recommend?


Julie Morrison said...

I have heard the story. my father told it to me when i was very young. He always left off the end. On Christmas day the war was on hold. and the next day they went back to work as usual.
I think I woulda been a bit screwed up if I had lived through that event. How does one ever reconcile such things?

Anonymous said...

A truly awesome story of the power of God and music to bring people together. And then the power of sin to tear them asunder, once again, in a moments notice.

Those soldiers, were brought together by a the love of a common Lord. I think it's fair to say that the songs they were signing were probably mostly hyms. Not much of the contemporary, secular Christmas fare that we would know all too well today.

What a pefect snaphot of the power of God's love in Christ, and how we just won't have it...not for very long. With us, and with them, the self must win out in the end.

Thanks be to God that He has put that "self" and it's desire to always advance, often at the expense of the other, to death, once and for all, on that bloody cross two thousand years ago.

To hear it from someone who was actually there, who could recount every precious moment of that brief glimpse into the kingdom of Heaven, is truly a gift.

Thanks Jack, for sharing that gift with us in a such a way as we might experience that special moment in time with your Uncle and with you.

- Steve Martin