Saturday, September 8, 2007

“What else could be done?”

“What else could be done?”

This was a couple of years back. I was browsing around in the general store just a short walk from my house, right in the center of town. It was just a brief exchange I overheard as I waited for my daughter to make up her mind about some greatly important purchase: a new notebook for school, or colored markers, or maybe it was the choice of a candybar that had her stumped. We were right up by the front, by the cash register where the owner's father was literally minding the store. This is the kind of place where you know the owners and the owners know you —they apologize if they don't have the disposable fountain pen you've grown to like writing with, but they "think they have some coming in next Tuesday." Anyway, it was their dad at the register that day, a handsome old and kind man, quiet, always pleasant, a gentleman, just possibly the perfect specimen of what has come to be known of as “the greatest generation.” So up to the counter steps this very pretty elderly woman. Blue-gray eyes. Her face was aged, but still smooth and fair. Her neatly kept hair was a vague reminiscence about being blonde. She explained that she was looking for some craft supplies. As she asked for his help she spoke slowly and softly, with the ever so slight trace of a German accent.

They disappeared into that part of the store and were back within moments, each with an armload (my daughter was still weighing pros and cons)."I couldn't help but notice your accent,” the old man mentioned as he placed her items into a thin brown onionskin giftshop bag. His tone was of an asking, an invitation to small talk. I remember the smile in his eyes, even through his thick glasses. If each of them were sixty years younger, he might have been asking her to a dance.

Yes, she allowed, she was from Germany. Many years ago. She was a girl. Dresden.

"Such a beautiful place... And such beautiful people. I remember it...,” he said at first wistfully and then his voice trailed off to explain. "The war," he said and stammered slightly, and his whole person took on a strange burdened quality. "So much was destroyed. So much..." He looked toward the floor and she quickly leaned forward as if trying to lift his eyes. I forget the exact words the old man said after that. I only remember hearing something break in his voice. I only remember the sorrow.

"What else could be done?" the German long-ago girl said. She offered this to him —as an acknowledgment, as understanding and forgiveness. She spoke of the horrible things her country had done, for all its beauty —what else could be done?

The two of them stood there silently for one very delicate second.

Then they each smiled and thanked each other through the rest of the craft supply transaction. It was off to “have a good day” and “do the same.” Sometime later that same day I got my daughter to make up her mind and decide on her purchase.

That little conversation in a small town general store stuck with me, and it has come to mind from time to time over the past couple of years. I think of it when I hear people speak in triumphal terms of that "greatest generation." It comes to mind when pundits want to compare wars and rework history into simplistic equations. It comes to mind when I hear men who have never truly known the experience of war speak of it, as if it were a business venture, as a “remarkable success.” I hear that old soldier’s voice breaking with sorrow and that old “enemy” woman offering him her consolation.

I’ve never spoken with that “old soldier” about that conversation since that day. I think at the time I said something articulate like “wow,” as I paid for my daughter’s purchase, and he simply nodded and smiled, shook his head. I know I’ve seen him drive by in uniform in our town’s Memorial Day parade a couple of times since then. The uniform still fits. The old soldiers ride in classic convertibles at just the same speed little leaguers and cub scouts can walk. The way he carries himself there, I’m certain that he’s proud of his service to his country. For all the sorrow, I sense he is not sorry. From me there’s always a salute as I watch him go by. And I think of my own dad, gone now, and of that whole generation —the lessons they learned and taught about sacrifice, the war they fought, and the peace they prayed would last for their children. And grandchildren

I don’t know if I can close this piece with a resounding conclusion. I would like to think that I’ve learned something somehow, just trying to put down the words. I know this is something about sorrow and sacrifice —about courage and peace. I’d like to think it is about thanks and hope, forgiveness and consolation. "What else could be done?" the German long-ago girl said to the stammering old soldier. I guess that’s where I’d like to leave this, with that question. Between them it meant one thing. For us, I think it stands as question.

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