When I was young, my parents tried to guard me against traumatic exposure to death.
I was 9, when my daddy’s parents died, and I did not attend their funerals. In my teenage years, though, there was ample exposure to death; the Vietnam War raged abroad and on daily televised news programs.
I’ll never forget an October day when I was a Georgia Southern student and was first on the scene of a fatal accident. An elderly man had run a stop sign and been broadsided on U.S. Highway 301 near Statesboro. My heart was in my throat as I automatically followed emergency training the Boy Scouts had instilled in me. Turned out the old man had suffered a heart attack and was most likely dead before the accident.
That was my first encounter with death, up close and personal. I will never forget the man’s fixed and dilated pupils, blood everywhere, how quickly his skin went stone cold to the touch.
Hard as that was, though, there’s nothing more devastating than the death of a child. I’d lost a neighbor to cancer, Janice McCommons. Janice was so special that while she battled cancer, enduring a leg amputation, the kids at Greensboro High School voted her as Homecoming Queen.
As a teenager I once sang a solo verse at a little boy’s funeral. He’d been killed at the Yellow River Drag Strip in Covington. He was on his daddy’s shoulders to see better. A race car disintegrated, and the hood flew into the crowd, decapitating the child. Our choir sang "When They Ring Those Golden Bells," there wasn’t a dry eye in the church. I decided then never to sing a solo at a funeral again.
Not long after that, death claimed my good friend Billy Curtis, in a car wreck when we were only 16. And the next year, when I was 17, my Daddy died.
It seems to me that death was harder to cope with back then, because we only had to deal with it on sporadic occasions. Today, films and videos seem routinely filled with death. Many electronic games glorify violence; to reach the next level of competition one must kill as many people as possible.
How can this not cheapen the value of life? Only when a relative comes home from Iraq or Afghanistan in a box does death seem to register. Only when a gunman goes berserk at some university, or drives an automobile into a crowd, does death become personal.
It seems to me that games which graphically portray killing people as painless fun trivializes the horror of taking a human life. I was spared having to face that, having never served in the military. But night after night, violence is played out across our nation’s airwaves. It’s no wonder other cultures think of America as hedonistic, violent and vice-riddled.
October always reminds me of at least three epic World War II battles, the casualties from any one of which defy comprehension from afar.
The British destroyed the German army of Egypt at El Alamein in October 1942. The Brits lost 25,000 men; they killed or captured over 60,000 Nazi troops.
Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle in history, resulted in the destruction of Japan’s navy on Oct.2, 1944. 10,000 Japanese sailors died; so did 2,000 Americans — half from a kamikaze attack on the carrier St. Lo.
Also that month, the Polish Home Army attempted to retake Warsaw. 50,000 Polish servicemen were killed; over two million civilians were slaughtered by the Nazis as the Russian army stood outside Warsaw’s gates — and did nothing.
Somehow it’s easier to read of millions of people perishing in war than it is to confront one death on a personal, solitary basis. As time marches inexorably onward, wartime fatalities eventually become mere numbers on a page.
It’s my hope, this October, that America is not raising children for whom death of adversaries merely signifies victory in a game. News reports seem to indicate, however, that a substantial segment of our society has little compassion for the sanctity of life.
I surely hope it’s not necessary for each young person to look into an old man’s fixed and dilated eyes in order to engender appreciation for the sacred value of one human life.
Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.