Sunday, November 8, 2009

Saving Private Hagerbaumer

His name was Bill (William, actually). He never got to enter any kind of memorial to his service in World War I. He was a blood relative with a clear case of PTSD. And a moral conflict he could never resolve.

Most of you have probably seen Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg's lavishly set WWII film focused on a small band of soldiers on an odd mission in the land war in Europe.

Perhaps you remember the scene where a German soldier is overtaken in his foxhole by the Americans. He does his best to seem sympathetic to the Americans and to American popular culture. Then comes the decision: to shoot him or let him go unarmed since the GI's are on the move and in no position to hold a POW.

They let him go. Later, he pulls the trigger in a standoff with the boyish GI clerk typist who is unable, or unwilling, to shoot first. The GI is unable to kill. So he is killed.

This happened to great step-uncle Bill. Bell overran a German in his trench. He threw down his weapon when Bill cried, "Haende hoch!" (Hands up!). I'm sure that in reply to Bill's fluent German, the German soldier would have replied "Nicht schiessen, nicht schiessen! Bitte nicht! Ich moecthe Ihnen sprechen." (Don't shoot, don't shoot! Please don't! I want to talk with you.). He was just a young boy, really.

Uncle Bill didn't know whether he could trust this enemy who shared his blood and ancestry, but not his nationality. Bill had already seen plenty of battle, had surely lost a number of buddies. The German begged for his life. How much trench warfare and mustard gas had he seen?

Bill shot him.

And he could never rid his mind of the German's last words, the sight of the young man's body falling to the earth. Bill had nightmares. He cried. He self-medicated with alcohol. He smoked. He never married. He never forgot, and he died long before his actual death.

He left Mom $200 in his will. She used it to buy the window air conditioner that at last cooled our house during the hot Nebraska summers in the early 60's.

What pastor would have been able to counsel Bill back in his day? Where could he have turned? And who in the family would have had a clue? Did he ever go to Holy Communion again and feel welcome, healed?

And we should remember this. Before we were forced to rename it World War I, this was called "The Great War" and "The War to End All Wars". It only did that for 21 years. Remember that the next time you read about, see a photo of or visit the site of a Nazi death camp where a solemn marker proclaims "Nie Wieder", never again.

"He was never the same," my Mom recalled on my visit with her two months ago.

I don't know how Fourth of July and fireworks ever worked for Bill. I don't know how they could have. But I pray that the voices of angels and the eternal light of Christ do what we were unable to do here on earth: give him peace.

Lord Jesus, thank you for saving Private Hagerbaumer. Rest well, Uncle, and welcome home!


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