Not many years had passed since the demagoguery of Senator Joe McCarthy when President Eisenhower embarked on what he called “People-to-People” diplomacy. I don’t know the details because it happened before my teenage years but my father set aside his butcher’s apron and knife to travel with a group of other business leaders to East and West Berlin and Moscow.
Dad returned home with photos and stories of the stark contrasts between grocery stores from “the East and the West” but what I remember most from that trip was not the bravery it must have taken for my Dad to travel to the capital city of our “national enemy” but rather the fact that he brought home seal-skin hats that we had seen many Russians wore in the winter in the National Geographic photos we looked at as kids.
I sit amazed nowadays at the courage he embodied to take such risks. We regularly read the virulent anti-Communist propaganda tracts put out by the John Birch Society so to be seen by others as one who would travel to meet “the enemy” was in reality, my Dad’s embodiment of the Jonah story. Nineveh was the Moscow for Jonah and I’m sure my Dad’s theology probably included Jonah’s “repent or risk divine destruction” message even though in those days I think it was forbidden for him to take his Bible “behind the Iron Curtain”.
I do remember our church supported some missionaries who “smuggled Bibles” to the people ruled by “godless Communists” but wonder now how my father’s friends and work colleagues reacted to his willingness to travel to the enemy’s home turf unarmed as a people-to-people diplomat. I wore that beautiful seal-skin hat with pride – after all, it was a novelty and it fit in well with the “coon-skin Davy Crockett” hats my brothers and I wore a few years before.
Dad left school after the tenth grade to help in the family butchering business. He was very proficient with the knife – from boning out hams at work to showing his sons how to skin a rabbit or gut a deer on our hunting adventures. It is easy to remember those typically “macho” scenes of a father and sons bonding together while fishing or hunting but from my vantage point now of fifty-five plus years later, it is his willingness to stretch out his hand to embrace an enemy is a memory I want to cherish.
Rest in Peace, Dad. Your lessons to me as we sighted-in our shotguns or rifles before going hunting in my teen years always came with your proviso: “never, ever, point your gun at a human being; never shoot anything you don’t wish to kill; and eat what you kill.”
It was those messages in the back of my mind when I turned 18 and registered for the military draft and fired the rifle assigned to me on the Wheaton College ROTC rifle range that caused me to declare I was a Conscientious Objector as it dawned on me that my targets were no longer pheasants, deer, or rabbits but rather “Viet Cong”.
You never bragged about your role as part of what our culture deems “the Greatest Generation” as you followed General Patton’s troops through France and into Germany trying to recover the bodies of dead and wounded GIs off the battlefield as German snipers aimed at the spotlight you operated. I never got the message from you about the heroism of going to war – even against the Nazis. Granted, you were only in your early 20s and I remember how invulnerable I felt at that age. But real courage was modeled for this son by your un-armed attempt at diplomacy to those you saw as “trapped behind the Iron Curtain.”
It is my prayer that I, too, have found ways to model such leadership for my own sons in some small way to help heal the wounds of war and division.