Monday, June 1, 2009

In Lieu Of Tribute ...

I have strong feelings for the meaning of Memorial Day. I should have said something earlier. Belatedly, here it is.

Once in a lifetime we are given an opportunity to give someone his or her due. Through no fault of mine I was in such position some years back. A person whom we knew died, and someone needed to give a few words on the occasion.

I was in the armed forces, a missile artillery outfit in the far-east. Our company did not have a chaplain. The company commander was sane and rational, but I would not have gone to him for psychological, spiritual, or sexual consultation. My platoon leader was a fine man, about my age. He and I spent some time over beers, but he was no wiser than I. The first sergeant of the company was an old bear whom nobody loved, including his mother, I am sure. With the fifty or so people in the outfit there was not anyone whom I would liken to the chaplain character on M*A*S*H.

I was a bit of a misfit due to my background. I came from unusual origin and had been educated more than my fellows. I also did not get drunk every night, and did not partake the local fauna.

Maybe it was this reason why people came to me for confession and consultation in lieu of a chaplain. At first I took it lightly, for I was not very wise myself. Later I realized that these people, including me, needed a spiritual leader from time to time. What bothered me was that I knew I was not qualified, yet they came to me nevertheless. Sometimes they left offerings like a cigar, a half-six-pack of beer or a bag of sunflower seeds. I did not want any offerings. Given my dubious qualifications I would have been willing to pay for some of the stories that they presented to me. But I began to take it seriously enough to at least not disclose it to others. Kind of like a confessional between priest and sinner, although the demarcation in this case was a bit fuzzy.

There was one sergeant who had a tendency to piss off anyone, including the company commander. I managed to stay out of his way, for I had my position that did not interact with him. However, one spring day we got some news over the telephone: "Sergeant XXX died while crossing a flooded river. He, his driver, and a number of local nationals were swept by the raging river into the deep waters. None survived."

Due to my imposed status I was called to deliver the equivalent of a eulogy before the company. My first inclination was to say nothing. I learned early in my life that if I can’t say anything good about a person, it is best to say nothing. But that was not an option.

This was many years ago, so I don’t remember exactly what I said upon the occasion. I know I dismissed the thought of saying “It could not have happened to a nicer guy.” I could say that over a beer with another soldier, but not in front of a group who expects something more spiritual regardless of their dislike for the recently deceased.

My assessment of what I said back then may have been similar to this:

“Sergeant XXX was generally disliked.

“In actuality, he appeared to be a despicable asshole. But that was just his attitude. I am sure he had some good qualities. He managed to hold down his job and avoid pissing off people to the extent of getting him killed. We must give him credit for that.

“I have tried to get close to him several times. He could not care less. I gave up after a while, and just nodded in his direction when we passed."
While saying these words I looked at faces and saw smiles and nods what I assumed were acknowledging similar experiences with the former asshole. I finished with this,

“I know that we did not make friends with him. I realize that he was not one to have for a friend, for he never seemed to trust anyone. I suspect that he lived a very lonely life as a result of that. While he was here, I, or many of you I assume, could not have cared less for his living or passing.

“But now that he is gone, I want to express my sincere feeling about him. The nationals who were in the vehicle with him were innocent of anything to do with him. They were victims of circumstances. He was simply giving them a ride from place to place. So, in the end, in spite of himself, he was trying to do a good deed. If there were a way to give him and the nationals a second chance, I would consider it.

"May they rest in peace."

I came away with some satisfaction that I did not do harm in this instance. My fellow soldiers did not say anything, but neither did they laugh or threaten me with bodily harm. The already grumpy first sergeant went back to his shit list, and the company commander looked at me for a few seconds while shaking his head, and left. My lieutenant joined me and suggested that we have some beer.

Why the hell not? We were off duty and after five in the evening. We got wasted.


Nolens Volens said...

Interesting. I do like to tell it like it is, but NOT LIKE THAT at a funeral. I'll keep that in mind if I am ever asked to do an eulogy on someone nobody liked. NOT! ;)

Susan's Pet said...

As I said, I am not sure of my exact wording, but at the end I did give him credit for trying to do some good.

I believe that lying in a eulogy is no better than telling the truth. Nobody wanted to do this, so I had to accept the task. I am older and supposedly wiser now, but I am not sure that I could do better today.

Milliscent said...

When placed in such situations we can only do the best we are able, and in the best way we know at the time.