They were given to me by an IT guy who had recently relocated to the U.S. after working as a defense contractor somewhere in the Middle East. His grandfather had survived Pearl Harbor and had fought at Midway. That battle – launched only six months after Japan’s first attempted to annihilate the naval presence of the U.S. in the Pacific – ended with the beginning of the end of Emperor Hirohito’s dreams of empire. It was reportedly Japan’s worst naval defeat in 350 years.
The mementos of the grandfather now rested in the hands of the grandson who trusted me with them. I was to give them to someone who was worthy.
One was a Midway veteran’s medal. This went to our host in the French Gypsy camp after a gathering with Spanish Gypsies. Michel had said to the gathering that without America’s intervention, his people would not exist. He said that they owed their lives and would always be grateful. Our grandparents had conquered Hitler. But a local mayor near the encampment said the week before we arrived that Hitler hadn’t killed enough of them, so their battle still isn’t over.
Michel is in the midst of his own Midway. Resistance to his hopes has come from a powerful minority within his community. He has responded with humble love but no decrease in his velocity down a new path for his people.
The second memento was a Basque Ring Rosary. The design originally appeared sometime in the 1500s from the region near the Pyrenees Mountains between what is now France and Spain. It is a small ring encircled by 10 small spheres and a cross that can help guide a person in prayers during difficult times. Worn on the finger, I was told that it had been a chaplain’s during WWII. None of us on the trip are Catholic, but we also know that we see through the mirror darkly right now. When it is face-to-face time, then we can know with certainty the fine-tuned theological points. Until then, we work on it as we tremble.
I found the right place for the other memento that had been entrusted to me, hanging with the dog tags of one of our own.
Jason had been asked to tell his story at the Spanish Gypsy gathering. Some of the families there were Basques. He had also spoken at a gathering in Le Gua the night before we left. Each time he spoke, the crowd was still as they listened to the voice of a man who had been spared from death.
He is a veteran of Afghanistan, and he is a veteran of Los Angeles. He told me that all of the friends from his childhood are now dead or in prison. He has scars from a bullet wound, from an attack that left two others dead. He works now to help others rebuild their lives after prison. And he is raising two daughters as a single dad. The only other personal information I have about him is that his mother is a strong and loving presence in his life. I would often threaten him to not scratch the bites from the swarms of mosquitos that we encountered after the rains, or I would tell on him to her. It was a joke, but I don’t think I saw him scratch once.
I gave him the ring. He said nothing, but took off the chain of dog tags he wore under his clothes, opened the clasp, added the Basque rosary, and put the chain back on beneath his shirt. He then told me at that it was the first time he had taken those tags off.
When we came to Paris, the Arc de Triomphe was on our short list. Basically the entire country of France is on vacation in August, and we arrived at the tourist spot on what might have been the busiest hour of the busiest day of the year. Families dragging toddlers were jaywalking across the epic roundabout, thinking that they had supernatural protection from becoming taxi-fodder because they were on holiday.
Beneath the shadow of the arch is the tomb of some unknown WWI soldier, silent beneath a flame that always burns. I had to get a picture of Jason there for his mom, the woman God used to save his life.
As he knelt before the memorial, he pulled his dogtags and the ring rosary from beneath his shirt so they could be seen in the picture. The crowd went quiet, and then gave way to him. No one stepped into the way of the camera lens. I heard phrases that included ‘un héros’ spoken throughout the crowd. Jason didn’t move. My vision blurred. The picture posted here was the best that I could take, considering that I was trying to stay composed.
That he was destined to give awesome almost-dangerous airplane rides to hyperactive kids with blue blue eyes in an abandoned futbol field could have been reason enough that he is still alive. That he has two daughters that need a dad like him might be reason enough. Or that he would reverently wear a gift from someone unknown to him but who would have understood his battles might be the reason that he has been spared.
What I know is that his story isn’t over.
NEXT TIME: Dandelion Whine, maybe…
Picture of Jason under L’Arc de Triomphe at the World War I Memorial in Paris, from my cell phone.