Preparing for Christmas this week, I’ve been contemplating the familiar while relishing Dickensian flashes of Christmases past. Reverencing the past, I think, enriches the present, engenders hope and provides guidance for the future.
But even as Christians celebrate the joyous season, holidays are a time of great despair for many. Jewish folks begin their celebration of Hanukkah this week, but for skeptics, agnostics and atheists, the holiday season is often difficult.
Today, for instance, is our winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. As the Sun lingers over the southern hemisphere, this shortest day brings with it the longest night. For those of little faith, long nights are devoid of distractions to keep man from thinking on his true condition. Solitary contemplation often creates dismay when one considers the puny span of a human life measured against that of the Universe.
"The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread," wrote Blaise Pascal some 300 years ago.
Christmas, 1968, filled me with silence and dread, as the abyss awaited. I was a high school senior with a choice between Vietnam and college, my dad had died in August, and celebration was not the operative word.
If it was to be Vietnam, I wanted to fly, so I talked to the Navy and the Air Force. But only the Army was interested, and they wanted me in a helicopter. But a news report estimated the life expectancy of a Huey pilot in a landing zone at six seconds, which tempered my zeal to fly choppers.
Forty years have come and gone since then. Good times and bad. Still, I remember those long holiday nights in 1968, with the only sound my own frantic thoughts arguing in my head.
That doesn’t make me a psychiatrist, but it lends empathy for those in desperate situations facing times of festive celebration in a nation consumed with materialism.
So let me tell you about a man who did take the Army’s offer to fly. At 6’ 4" he was too tall to fly fixed wing aircraft in Korea, but granted a battlefield commission, Captain Ed "Too Tall" Freeman was assigned to the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam, where he flew wingman for Major Bruce Crandall. They were heavily involved in a November 1965 battle, where both won the Medal of Honor.
The Vietnam War was escalating then. 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, commanded by Colonel Hal Moore and numbering just over 400 men, had airlifted into the Ia Drang Valley, unknowingly surrounded by 4,000 enemy troops.
Moore’s book, "We Were Soldiers Once…and Young," tells the story completely, and the film-based on the book is good too.
So intense was the Ia Drang battle, so overwhelming the number of enemy troops encountered, that Moore’s command was in danger of being massacred. The landing zones were so "hot," filled with hostile fire, that they were closed. Medi-vac helicopters were ordered to stand down, prohibited from attempting to reach Moore’s men.
Ed "Too Tall" Freeman, along with Bruce Crandall, flew 22 relief missions into an emergency LZ carved out less than 100 meters from the enemy. Freeman flew 14 of those missions on his own, in an unarmed chopper, bringing supplies, ammo, and water to the troops in the field, and flying more than 70 wounded out. His gallantry transcended any manner of belief, even to those who witnessed it.
Well, Aug. 20, at the age of 80, "Too Tall" Freeman flew home. He’s buried in the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery, near Boise. And as so many feel the loss of a loved one more poignantly during holidays it’s likely that his family is still grieving. But I believe that in spite of their loss, there’s a joyous celebration going on at the LZ where "Too Tall" last landed.
No, I can’t prove that. I’m just a mortal, aware that all theology is man-made. Still…
"It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason," Pascal writes beautifully. "That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason."
There’s a hymn in "We Were Soldiers," entitled "Mansions of the Lord." I believe it explains what guided Freeman through the fire in the Ia Drang Valley that day:
"To fallen soldiers let us sing
Where no rockets fly
nor bullets wing
Our broken brothers let us bring
To the Mansions of the Lord
No more bleeding, no more fight
No prayers pleading
through the night
Just divine embrace,
In the Mansions of the Lord
Where no mothers cry
and no children weep
We will stand and guard
though the angels sleep
Through the ages safely keep
The Mansions of the Lord."
I hope "Too Tall" has a Merry Christmas with his brothers in arms in the mansions of the Lord, and that our nation will revere his example by continuing to support our troops in the field, who still stand guard though the angels sleep.
Nat Harwell is a resident of Newton County. His column appears in The Covington News on Sundays.