A few weeks ago I attended a reunion of our basic training company formed at Fort Riley, Kansas in the early months of the Korean War. This was in November of 1950, and the roll call of the neophyte soldiers who piled out of their barracks into the company street at 6 o,clock each morning was close to 160.
The count at our reunion in the central Minnesota town of Willmar was 22, almost all now 80 or 81. Most of the others were gone, as many as 30 of them lost in battle in Korea. Some of us spoke for a few minutes, telling very briefly of our lives since that first day in the company street in Kansas when a bulky master sergeant welcomed us with the comforting news that “this is the Army, you men. From now on, your minds move on one track. From now on you can give your soul to God because your butt is mine.”
He didn’t say butt. Nobody argued, for sure. Nearly 60 years later we remembered that terse introduction to this new, one-sided reality. They barked, and we jumped, the sergeant said. “You’re soldiers now.” That we were. We shared with each other what came after Kansas; Korea for some, Europe for others, death in an infantry attack for some, a full life for others. We offered a digest of our lives, but this was no poll of what we had accomplished in the years that came after, or how we identified ourselves and our journeys. Success stories were basically avoided. This was reminiscence, awkward at first because not many of us recognized each other although we certainly remembered the names and some of the faces. And after the stories, slowly at first and then with clear and unapologetic emotion, came the thanksgivings.
Our lives had been good: marriage, children, work, reasonable comfort and fulfillment..Some farmed, others worked and lived in the big city or in the rural towns. Nobody talked about the by-pass surgery and the pharmaceutical potions as common common as Social Security to practically all of us. Since almost all of us had been conscripted out of Minnesota , it went unspoken that most of the credit for our gathering belonged to the part of the world where almost all of us still live, and to its conviction that life-saving medicine and care should be available to all.
And so for three or four hours, we were a community. I regretted leaving. It was impossible to ignore the reality of age but a gift to spend at least three or four hours out of what we now see as a precious time and a kind of watershed in our lives.
It was also a gift to recognize once more that in the deepening of our time,, most of the other rewards and urgencies of our later years dwindle beside the rewards of nurturing the relationships in our lives—the ultimate gift of re-discovery.