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  • Writer's pictureStuart Sheldon

I Have Created Life But Never Taken It

The Stop to My Go, acrylic, playing card, cardboard, paper, oil pastel, resin on panel with original poetry, 32"x42", 2004, Stuart Sheldon

I never went to war. Never killed a man. Never got shot at. Never watched a friend die mid-sentence.

Why am I even going here?

Because the comfort of our lives cannot be overstated. Many suffered and still suffer beyond measure for our well-being. So that you and I can remain blissfully ignorant of what it means to fight to the death for all that we enjoy and take for granted. Today is Thanksgiving. And so was yesterday. Today is Memorial Day … and so is tomorrow.

Golden Gate National Cemetary

We too often reserve our remembrances to special days, a few hours here and there. But the dead are still dead and the wounded are still wounded inside and out. Thank you, Mr. Mandela. Thank you United States GIs. Thank you countless anonymous kids whose lives just ended one awful random morning in a desert or an island or a frozen forest.

Good fortune is the absence of bad fortune.

I am not particularly sensible, just happened to be born in the pocket between senseless death in the Far East (Vietnam) and senseless death in the Middle East (Iraq & Afghanistan). Not being forced into battle is a prize for a young man. We often forget that life is so deeply about what has not occurred. The absence of pain. We wallow in superficial, self-imposed wounds, self-aggrandizing so-called First-World predicaments.

I once had the serendipitous honor to sit on a plane across from a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge. This portly, 80-something gent was en route to a reunion of survivors of that hideous, year-long hell. He proudly sported a Battle of the Bulge vest and an army flat cap, tilted with a hint of swagger and emblazoned with pins and medals.

Batlle of the Bulge Vets

Batlle of the Bulge Vets

If you don’t know your history, this was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the United States in World War II; it involved 610,000 American men, with 89,000 casualties, including 19,000 killed. It took place in the dense Ardennes Forest during one of the coldest Winters in European history. The gentleman sitting across from me was a squad leader who lost every one of his men, saw virtually every one of his buddies die. Then, to add injury to his inconceivable insult, he got shot, taken to England to heal and returned to the front weeks later to continue to fight … for YOU.

Nobody I know personally has had an experience even remotely that gruesome. Yet, he smiled at me in a calm, avuncular manner. Removed his hat, ran age-spotted fingers, the same trigger-pulling fingers that killed countless enemy soldiers, and continued to recount his saga without embellishment or melodrama.

Next time you have to kill a man to stay alive, then complain to me about how tough your daily grind is.

Hero is a word we throw around like rice at a wedding these days. With all due respect, every veteran of our recent, neo-con-fabricated wars is now referred to as a hero. Clearly, everyone who fights and dies is heroic. But that old man … HE beat Hitler. HE made the world safe for democracy. HE cashed in his humanity so that my kids and I could live free of the savagery he sees every time he shuts his eyes. All I could say through tears as we stood to disembark was THANK YOU, SIR. What else does one say? There are no words for what really matters.

Battle of the Bulge. John Florea—Time & Life

Battle of the Bulge. John Florea—Time & Life

It all comes down to gratitude. Not only for what we have. But for what we do not have. Battle scars. Nightmares. Survivor’s guilt.

For a great many of us, contrary to what we might contrive to believe, our load is light to carry. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you earned it all alone. Just acknowledge your great luck. And respect those that took bullets so that you could enjoy your children’s laughter free from tyranny.

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