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30 August 2008

The Long Arm of Compassion

There’s something eerie about the way a word or two, a triviality, maybe a sound or an odor can within an instant provide a fleeting, panoramic view of an entire lifetime. A face in a crowd, rain at the window, the distant moan of a train at night, birds arguing in a tree, the smell of bacon and eggs on a misty dawn — each of itself can bring a memory. But when several such memories combine simultaneously and with no apparent cause, it suggests, well, a metaphysical continuum.

Such a thing happened this evening when I was at the computer, making a routine check of the monitor service I use to keep track of my blog readership. My eye picked up Wittlich, a town in Germany’s Rhineland-Pfalz region, where, the monitor reported, three people were on line, reading my blog. And in a microsecond my mind went to Ray, a college chum, and how, when on recon in that area during a 1944 twilight, his jeep was ambushed.

His driver died instantly in the machine-gun fire, his radio operator rolled to the ground, severely wounded, and Ray, blinded in one eye and bleeding from a head wound, leaped from the jeep and tumbled down an embankment and into a thicket beside a stream.

He sprawled face-down in the brambles, and he heard the German commander’s order to find him and finish him off. A soldier came down the slope and stood beside him. Ray says he could see the man’s muddy boots inches away. There came the sound of the bolt clacking as the German chambered a fresh round in his rifle, and Ray knew that his time had run out — after only 20 years on earth.

But, miracle of miracle, the German soldier fired two rounds into the ground well clear of Ray’s body, then turned and clambered back up the rise. Ray surmised during a recent visit, “He took pity on me, I guess, and he must have had it up to here with all the killing. Bless his heart, I’ll never be able to thank him.”

Ray survived the war, returned to his college town, married his sweetheart, had some kids, and launched into a long and rewarding career in music and academia. He plays outstanding piano, composes hugely entertaining tunes (his latest is “She’s a Raggedy Ann in a Barbie Doll World”). And through the years the world has been vastly enriched by his quick intelligence, his standup forthrightness, and his infectious good humor.

And so tonight I glimpsed the continuum. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought, if one of those folks reading my blog in Wittlich happened to be that German soldier, now like Ray and me a creaky old geezer.

And wouldn’t it be great if I — right here and on behalf of Ray and all of his family and the rest of us who’ve loved him and benefited from his presence in our world all these years — could say, “Danke vielmals, Soldat. Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done with your life, you have our deepest gratitude for sparing a multi-talented little guy who, if you knew him, you’d like as much as we do.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful for him, too, to sense a kind of satisfaction deriving from that moment of compassion beside a forlorn creek in a long-ago dusk. To rest back in his chair in Wittlich, re-light his meerschaum pipe, and murmur thoughtfully, “Gott sei dank. . . .


Copyright © 2008 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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