Uncle Bill and Memorial Day
When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say, For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today
Inscription on the memorial to the dead of the British 2nd Infantry Division at Kohima.
War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice; a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice, — is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.
John Stuart Mill, 1862
One of my earliest memories is being called a “Dirty Yank”. My Dad met my Mom while he was in the Air Force in Newfoundland. After his enlistment ended he was unable to find work in Saint John’s, my Mom’s home town, so the young couple traveled to my Dad’s home town in Paris, Illinois. I made my appearance shortly thereafter. My Mom, who was all of 21 at the time, grew homesick, so she and my Dad, an elderly 24, pulled up stakes again and moved back to Saint John’s. Family tranquility was forever destroyed when my little brother arrived a year and a half later, as he and I quickly put our heads together for campaigns of mischief and nefarious activities which enlivened my childhood. The family stayed in Saint John’s until I was four, jobs were still scarce on the ground there, alas, before the family moved back permanently to Paris in the summer of 1961.
During our stay in Saint John’s I met all of my maternal relatives on a frequent basis, and other than my maternal Grandmother and Grandfather, my favorite was no doubt my great Uncle Bill Barry. Whenever he would come over he would yell out, “There’s that Dirty Yank!” I would lisp out in return, “There’s that Dirty Newf”!
Bill Barry was a truly wonderful man. An Irishman with a laughing, sunny disposition, he was also a fighter. A boxer in his young manhood, he lived up to Chesterton’s famous observation about the inhabitants of the Emerald Isle:
For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad.
He loved to brawl when he was a young man, but there was always a smile on his face when he was doing so, albeit the police who had to bust up some of the fights he got involved in didn’t always share the joke. It was to be expected that such a man would join up with the Royal Army immediately when war was declared on Germany in 1939. When he was asked why he did, he said, “Well, someone has to teach the Limies how to fight!” Fight he did, taking part in the D-Day invasion, and fighting on through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany until the thousand year Reich became the twelve year Reich. He rose from private to sergeant, receiving a field promotion for the courage and leadership he displayed in taking a village. He had a short spell as a noncom. After the Lieutenant left him and a squad in charge of the village, Uncle Bill led his men to an abandoned wine cellar and then, as all the best military leaders do, led by example. “Men, do as I do!” he shouted as he began to chug a bottle of wine. Inspired by this oration his men followed him, and by the time the Lieutenant arrived back, Uncle Bill and his command were dancing in the streets. The Lieutenant promptly, and correctly, tore the stripes off Uncle Bill’s tunic and he spent the rest of the war as a private. That was fine with Uncle Bill, since he had signed up to fight and not to make the Army a career. A fighter Uncle Bill definitely was, but not a soldier!
His family rejoiced when he arrived back in Newfoundland in one piece, my future Mom noting that he seemed just the same, although he was now sensitive to loud noises. However, one night my Mom saw that the War had left a deeper mark on Uncle Bill. She was visiting Uncle Bill and his wife Aunt Nool, and an older couple came over to see Uncle Bill. Their son had served with Uncle Bill and had been killed in the War. Uncle Bill talked with them and told them how much all the other men in his unit had liked their boy, and how he had been very brave. After he died they had buried him with full military honors. This all seemed to be of great comfort to the older couple, and they thanked Uncle Bill and left. My Mom then saw something she had never seen before, her tough and always smiling Uncle Bill weeping. He turned to Aunt Nool and said that he hadn’t realized that he was such a good liar. The poor son of the older couple had stepped upon a huge land mine and there hadn’t been enough left of him to bury.
I think of that young soldier on this Memorial Day and of Uncle Bill. Memorial Day is all about memory. We remember our war dead and we say thank you. Gratitude is one of the noblest of human sentiments, just as ingratitude is one of the lowest. Those who died in war are far beyond, as Lincoln put it, “our poor power to add or detract”, but it is important for us to remember them. We remember their sacrifice and honor that sacrifice. We comfort, as best we can, those they have left behind. We build monuments to them that they can never see in the flesh, make speeches about them that they can never hear in the flesh, and write words about them that they can never read in the flesh, but all of these aid in our ability to remember them. Courage and love are always in short supply in this vale of tears, and on Memorial Day we remember, and honor, both. Our thanks and gratitude to the fallen, and our determination to remember them, is small tribute enough, but it is the best that we have. Let us live our lives in honor and deceny, doing good for those around us, and thus be worthy of the great sacrifice they made. May God grant them His mercy, and may we recall them, not just on Memorial Day, but every day.