Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The ilk from which I came.

Grampy's squadron's patch
One of the most difficult aspects of dealing with my father dying when I was only 6 years old was trying to figure out who in the hell I was. I had an amazing mother and was surrounded by wonderful, loving people who cared for me like I was their own flesh and blood, but I could still tell half of my genes came from someone who was missing. The way my brain processed situations was different, the way I related to people was different, and even what I found funny was different. We may all have been wearing the same jersey, but mine had a different name on the back, and I wrestled with what my name meant. My mother made enormous sacrifices to provide for me, but I think she found it difficult to talk about my father - I suppose some wounds are so deep they never heal to the point of discussion. My paternal aunt lived only an hour away, and she shared as much as she could about my father, but lamented how she never knew him well due to their age gap - he was still a toddler when she got married. My paternal grandfather lived too far away for me to see him with any regularity, but the summer after 7th grade, my parents put me on a plane to Tennessee by myself to go visit him. The trip provided a vivid definition of my last name, and changed the way I lived.

Grampy's in the first row - 4th from left
Looking at Grampy was like looking into a time warp mirror. His face looked just like my 13 year old one, but with an additional 65 years worth of adventure added to it. I wanted to know how he had earned those wrinkles, so I asked him to tell me the stories behind each one. I poured him a gin and he handed me my first beer, then I was catapulted into a solid week of enthralling stories, from growing up during the Depression to playing professional hockey to dropping projectiles on Hitler. Grampy flew bombing missions in a Lancaster over Europe for the Royal Canadian Air Force's Pathfinders Force. He always began the story by saying: "On my first mission, I was in awe - it was the greatest fireworks display I ever saw. On the second, I said 'holy shit, I could get killed up here!'" He came quite close. On August 9, 1944, Grampy's 51st mission, his plane was hit multiple times and he ordered his crew of 8 to bail. All 8 parachutes deployed, and only 1 of the crew members was captured. After safely reaching the ground, Grampy hid from the Germans by day and walked at night. Eventually, he connected with the French underground, who smuggled him back to England on a small single engine plane. Grampy said he had never flinched since. He spent the rest of his life standing tall and confident.*

My family at Grampy's memorial "party"
When I was in high school, my step-dad never gave me any of those long, boring speeches imploring me not to engage in the typical shenanigans that get teenagers into serious trouble. Instead, every time I left the house to meet up with friends, he would look me in the eye and say: "remember who you are." I used to think he was trying to persuade me to maintain some sort of angelic reputation, but now I believe he meant something else entirely. He was reminding me of the ilk from which I came. In his simple statement, he was saying: "You're the heir of the name of a brave man who risked his life to drop bombs on a tyrant so you could live free. You're the son of a young widow who toiled tirelessly so you could prosper. People have made tremendous sacrifices for you, which should affect the way you live." It did.

Peter gets a history lesson from a WWII fighter pilot
Recently I've been reading through a letter the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome in the first century. Paul dedicates the first section of the letter to reminding the Romans of the sacrifice Jesus made for them by subjecting himself to death by excruciating execution, and of the freedom they now enjoyed as a result. He extols the power of Grace, emphasizing: "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). He makes it clear we did nothing to deserve this Grace, and there's nothing we can do to justify ourselves through our own deeds, yet I find it interesting how he explains why it should still affect the way we live. Paul says through Christ we have become adopted sons of God, we are heirs of His name, and we can call Him Father, or even "Daddy" (Romans 8:14-17, my uneducated layman's paraphrase).

Grampy's bravery empowered me to do great things. It was as if his experience in WWII had seeped into his genes and had been given to me as a rich inheritance. I soloed a plane before I soloed a car, backed by my confidence in my last name. I could look any man in the eye without flinching, because I knew the meaning of my name. I think this is the fount Paul is tapping into with the Romans. If my temporary earthly lineage affected me so, how much more should my life be different if I'm the adopted son of the Creator?

With the Memphis Belle
Therein lies the good news. I have friends who never had the opportunity to learn the meaning of their name, and I have other friends who have learned it and were disgusted by its history. Paul is saying it doesn't matter anymore. Whether you were born into aristocracy or into the lowest caste, you were welcomed to bear the name of the Most High by the sacrifice of Christ. You should take pride in the name, let it seep into the fiber of your being, and affect the way you live.

Lately I've been welling up with bitterness. There are some situations in both my life and the lives of my close brothers and sisters which have not played out well to say the least, and it's caused my cynicism to reach Louis CK levels. I know people don't enjoy the company of bitter people, so I've managed to internalize most of it, but it's still devouring my joy. In the midst of this, my friend Mark gave me a call. A historical foundation was flying a legit B-17 bomber from WWII into a local airfield, and he asked if I wanted to go check it out with him. I jumped at the chance to witness a remarkable piece of history. As we admired the Flying Fortress and listened to the stories of veterans from the greatest generation, Mark handed me an unexpected and extravagant gift: a pink wrist band. I would get to fly in the B-17.

While it wasn't a Lancaster, I still couldn't help but vividly imagine Grampy's 51st mission as the bomber known as the Memphis Belle took off. The flight was a mere few days after the 7th anniversary of my grandfather's death, and my brain was filled with memories. As I reflected on the legacy he left for me, I found little room left for bitterness in my heart. Perhaps there are sacrifices so great they trump temporary suffering. Perhaps there is an unconditional love so bountiful it outlasts the trials of today. I think Paul would agree. After all, he closes out Romans 8 by exclaiming: "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus."

I'm thankful for my ilk, both earthly and eternal, and I shall live accordingly.



What I'm Listening to During This Post:


*While I heard Grampy's stories many times, I could not remember the exact dates and number of parachutes. For those details, I referenced to an excellent article written about my grandfather by Dr. Bill Wallisch titled "In the Belly of the Whale." You can read the article here: http://wlajournal.com/12_2/Wallisch.pdf (he even gives me a shout out).

2 comments:

  1. And a fine ilk it is. To Grampy and to you, cheers!

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