The series I have been writing on the Church in the Second World War has taught me the power of the maxim, “The best way to learn a thing is to teach it.” What I have learned from writing about events in 1942, reported in diaries and journals on crumbling war-rationed paper, has opened my eyes to the world that shaped my own parents and those of us who are now fated to live as a poor sequel to “The Greatest Generation.” As soon as my father proposed marriage, he was back on convoys to North Africa and the South Pacific. Marriage came a year later, in 1943, with a one-day honeymoon consisting of a cruise on the Staten Island ferry, which was tame seamanship compared with the Murmansk Run upon which he then embarked.
A brief leave in 1944 enabled me to be conceived, after which my mother lived with the wife of a sea captain in New London, Connecticut, as they waited for the return of the ships. Although I confess I had no reading skills in the womb, my father addressed letters to me from strange ports in the North Atlantic. I was not so precocious that I was aware before birth of those events that engaged armies, but now I am old enough to count how few of those figures still remain in this world. They are gone with those of every generation who waited and weaved at home like Penelope and sailed fiery seas like Odysseus.
I have enjoyed the interest of those readers who have been learning with me about events and actors of the 1942 drama, and I still have enough old newspapers to soon turn the pages through to the end of 1943. Right now, I would like to take a pause in the war, which the warriors could not do, to record my own attempt at the pietas, which was the ancient duty to the memory of our ancestors. This is what I attempted in an earlier series I wrote called “Cloud of Witnesses.” Those columns were about “dead people I knew when they were alive, ” who had lived through World War II, and most through World War I; some of them knew people with living memories of Balaclava and the Indian Mutiny, and a couple had been two handshakes away from Nelson and Napoleon.
So I put them together in a little book called Cloud of Witnesses
, stopping at 50 characters. But before the manuscript was edited, some more had died, so it is now being published with 56. This pinch of incense to old friends and their friends was also an instruction to me of what Richard Llewellyn meant when he wrote in his book How Green Was My Valley
about “the line that stretched from Time That Was, to Time That Is, and Is Not Yet . . . fashioned in the Womb by the Will of God, the Eternal Father.” Only a few of these characters were soldiers in human wars, but all of them engaged that spiritual combat won on the Cross, whose spoils are ours only through the choice we make to fight or flee the field.
I have also written about them in an act of thanks for the priesthood, for I cannot think of any office in life that offers, through no personal merit and only by the grace of Orders, the chance to know so many different souls of every rank — cooks and princes and poets and teachers and firemen — helping them and being helped by them. It is the boast of every happy priest that the litanies when he was anointed so radiate his daily adventures that it seems as if he has never worked a day in his life. What the world calls “vacations” and “days off” are impatient interludes in a life whose every day, with its burden of hours, is far from a party but very much a feast.
Yet everyone could write portraits of those we knew, if only we pay attention to them and thank them for what they have given us, for every life is better than a novel. Each of us has as much claim as Herodotus to write as he did, five centuries before the solemn advent of Christ:
In the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and Barbarians from losing their due need of glory, and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.