Merry Christ­mas to our fallen broth­ers

The Covington News - - Opinion - Nat Har­well

Pre­par­ing for Christ­mas this week, I’ve been con­tem­plat­ing the fa­mil­iar while rel­ish­ing Dick­en­sian flashes of Christ­mases past. Rev­er­enc­ing the past, I think, en­riches the present, en­gen­ders hope and pro­vides guid­ance for the fu­ture.

But even as Chris­tians cel­e­brate the joy­ous sea­son, hol­i­days are a time of great de­spair for many. Jewish folks be­gin their cel­e­bra­tion of Hanukkah this week, but for skep­tics, ag­nos­tics and athe­ists, the hol­i­day sea­son is of­ten dif­fi­cult.

To­day, for in­stance, is our win­ter sol­stice, the short­est day of the year. As the Sun lingers over the south­ern hemi­sphere, this short­est day brings with it the long­est night. For those of lit­tle faith, long nights are de­void of dis­trac­tions to keep man from think­ing on his true con­di­tion. Soli­tary con­tem­pla­tion of­ten cre­ates dis­may when one con­sid­ers the puny span of a hu­man life mea­sured against that of the Uni­verse.

“The eter­nal si­lence of th­ese in­fi­nite spa­ces fills me with dread,” wrote Blaise Pas­cal some 300 years ago.

Christ­mas, 1968, filled me with si­lence and dread, as the abyss awaited. I was a high school se­nior with a choice be­tween Viet­nam and col­lege, my dad had died in Au­gust, and cel­e­bra­tion was not the opera- tive word.

If it was to be Viet­nam, I wanted to fly, so I talked to the Navy and the Air Force. But only the Army was in­ter­ested, and they wanted me in a he­li­copter. But a news re­port es­ti­mated the life ex­pectancy of a Huey pi­lot in a land­ing zone at six sec­onds, which tem­pered my zeal to fly chop­pers.

Forty years have come and gone since then. Good times and bad. Still, I re­mem­ber those long hol­i­day nights in 1968, with the only sound my own fran­tic thoughts ar­gu­ing in my head.

That doesn’t make me a psy­chi­a­trist, but it lends em­pa­thy for those in des­per­ate sit­u­a­tions fac­ing times of fes­tive cel­e­bra­tion in a na­tion con­sumed with ma­te­ri­al­ism.

So let me tell you about a man who did take the Army’s of­fer to fly. At 6’ 4” he was too tall to fly fixed wing air­craft in Korea, but granted a bat­tle­field com­mis­sion, Cap­tain Ed “Too Tall” Free­man was as­signed to the 229th As­sault He­li­copter Bat­tal­ion, 1st Cav­alry Divi­sion in­Viet­nam, where he flewwing­man for Ma­jor Bruce Cran­dall. They were heav­ily in­volved in a Novem­ber 1965 bat­tle, where both won the Medal of Honor.

The Viet­nam War was es­ca­lat­ing then. 1st Bat­tal­ion, 7th Cav­alry Reg­i­ment, com­manded by Colonel Hal Moore and num­ber­ing just over 400 men, had air­lifted into the Ia Drang Val­ley, un­know­ingly sur­rounded by 4,000 en­emy troops.

Moore’s book, “We Were Sol­diers Once…and Young,” tells the story com­pletely, and the film-based on the book is good too.

So in­tense was the Ia Drang bat­tle, so over­whelm­ing the num­ber of en­emy troops en­coun­tered, that Moore’s com­mand was in dan­ger of be­ing mas­sa­cred. The land­ing zones were so “hot,” filled with hos­tile fire, that they were closed. Medi-vac he­li­copters were or­dered to stand down, pro­hib­ited from at­tempt­ing to reach Moore’s men. But, wait… Ed “Too Tall” Free­man, along with Bruce Cran­dall, flew 22 re­lief mis­sions into an emer­gency LZ carved out less than 100 me­ters from the en­emy. Free­man flew 14 of those mis­sions on his own, in an un­armed chop­per, bring­ing sup­plies, ammo, and wa­ter to the troops in the field, and fly­ing more than 70 wounded out. His gal­lantry tran­scended any man­ner of be­lief, even to those who wit­nessed it.

Well, Aug. 20, at the age of 80, “Too Tall” Free­man flew home. He’s buried in the Idaho State Vet­er­ans Ceme­tery, near Boise. And as so many feel the loss of a loved one more poignantly dur­ing hol­i­days it’s likely that his fam­ily is still griev­ing. But I be­lieve that in spite of their loss, there’s a joy­ous cel­e­bra­tion go­ing on at the LZ where “Too Tall” last landed.

No, I can’t prove that. I’m just a mor­tal, aware that all the­ol­ogy is man-made. Still…

“It is the heart which per­ceives God and not the rea­son,” Pas­cal writes beau­ti­fully. “That is what faith is: God per­ceived by the heart, not by the rea­son.”

There’s a hymn in “We Were Sol­diers,” en­ti­tled “Man­sions of the Lord.” I be­lieve it ex­plains what guided Free­man through the fire in the Ia Drang Val­ley that day:

I hope “Too Tall” has a Merry Christ­mas with his broth­ers in arms in the man­sions of the Lord, and that our na­tion will re­vere his ex­am­ple by con­tin­u­ing to sup­port our troops in the field, who still stand guard though the angels sleep.

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