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Live life well to honor fallen
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December elicits wide ranges of emotion from me: Fury, melancholy, joy, greed, thanksgiving and heart-rending, soul-wrenching, unspeakable sorrow. An ineffable expression springing from gratitude deep within me. A groaning too deep for words.

I’m ever mindful that America’s involvement in World War II began at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. My wife and I married on a Dec. 16; if we make it to Thursday, it’ll mark 37 years of wedded bliss. And on Dec. 25, I join the vast majority of Americans celebrating the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Along with humans around the entire globe, on the evening of the last day of the month I take stock of what I am, and consider what I’d like to become in the time I have remaining.

But of all the days in December, the 16th also brings a melancholy of deep and abiding appreciation for people who made it possible for me to enjoy this life. For this year that day marks the 66th anniversary of America’s bloodiest World War II fight, "the Battle of the Bulge."

I try to avoid turning these columns into history lessons, but I’m bothered greatly whenever the bulk of Americans seem ignorant of great sacrifices made for their sake.

Hold that thought, now, for a brief digression:

Winter is my favorite time of year.

The naked trees reveal the lay of the land. Streams run clear and icy. The wind makes a different sound as it smacks you in the face, driving all but those who love it running inside. And, as the Earth leans into the turn at the far end of its oval-shaped orbit around the sun, the golden light and long shadows falling over this magnificent place evoke an inner peace, a joy warming from deep within one’s very marrow, for anyone who opens their eyes, heart, soul and mind, to creation itself.

I was ecstatic when plummeting temperatures invaded from the Arctic last week.

Last Tuesday, Pearl Harbor Day, I helped chaperone an Eastside High human anatomy class field trip to Atlanta’s "Dialog in the Dark" and "Bodies" exhibit at Atlantic Station. En route home, passing under bridges where I-20, I-75 and I-85 converge, I counted fast as possible the many sleeping bags and blankets of Atlanta’s homeless as our bus sped by.

And I remembered how bone-chilling cold cannot be escaped.

The coldest I ever was as a kid was when our Boy Scout troop camped out on the Dyer farm in Greene County, down in bottoms which are now underwater where U.S. Highway 278 crosses Lake Oconee. It was so cold that my daddy cranked our 1951 Chevy so the troop could huddle in it with the heater going full blast.

So, as Dec. 16 approaches, remembering that Boy Scout outing and Atlanta’s homeless under the bridges, my thoughts turn to American troops dug into frozen foxholes in the Ardennes Forest of France in 1944. It was already so bitterly cold that men were losing toes to trench foot and gangrene. But the Germans were collapsing; there was even talk of bringing our boys home for Christmas.

But then the Germans, desperate to split four Allied armies in a bid to sue for peace, threw everything they had at the center of the American lines. Half-a-million troops, nearly 2,000 tanks and another 2,000 artillery pieces pushed a salient — the "bulge" — into Allied territory. But the 101st Airborne, including Toccoa’s "Band of Brothers," held Bastogne despite being surrounded and short of virtually all supplies. Patton arrived. Allied air superiority returned with good weather. By Jan. 25, 1945, the "bulge" was no more.

Germany’s last hopes were dashed. American casualties totaled nearly 90,000, all of whom endured mind-numbing, inescapable cold. All many of them had wanted for Christmas was a steaming cup of coffee, or a hot bath.

Someone smarter than me once said that the meaning of life is to find meaning in life. In "the Battle of the Bulge," all gave some, and some gave all.

They left us a Christmas gift, our free society intact, with one string attached: It’s incumbent for us to live the best life we can.

If not for us, for them.


Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.