Monday, May 29, 2017

Honoring the heroes of my family

Today is Memorial Day and naturally the thoughts of Americans turn to those who served their country in America's wars and paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives.  Memorial Day is intended to honor them, while Veteran's Day is set aside each year to honor the men and women who have in the past and currently participate in the Armed Services.  I made the above video not so much for Memorial Day because many of my ancestors survived their respective conflicts, but because they all served when their country called, and they did their duty with honor.  The word honor has lost much of its traditional meaning these days, but traditionally it refers to having a keen sense of ethical conduct and integrity.  It seems to me that many people have lost sight of the fact that the blessings we enjoy now in America are not a birthright of all citizens, but are instead the product of a contract we have with each other, the words of which are written in the blood of those who have come before us who have paid for our freedom with their lives. 

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it really means to call oneself an American.  Our country seems to be divided along so many lines these days that it's difficult to determine where one sub-group ends and the other begins.  For some reason we've decided to ignore the common heritage that has in the past always unified us to concentrate on the minutia of what divides us along social, political and idealogical grounds.  We also seem to have lost sight of the fact that in every war this country has fought, the American soldier was fighting against a common enemy outside our borders and not within the boundaries of our own country.  At no other time in American history with the exception of the Civil War was the enemy we were fighting each other. 

I owe the members of my family who have served their country a debt a gratitude, both for the freedom I enjoy as a citizen of the United States and for my very existence.  I would not even be here were it not for the bad marksmanship of an unknown British soldier, who in 1784 shot my direct ancestor William T. Gaulding at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse and somehow managed not to hit any vital organs.  William Gaulding reported in his pension application that he was wounded severely during that battle when he was shot in the head and 'the bullet exited his nose, thereby rendering him incapable for further service.'  Well, I guess so.  His looks must not have been too much of a mangled mess because he managed to find two women who were willing to marry him, so I am indebted to them as well for enabling him to leave descendants, one of whom is me.  Hurray for that. 

I also think about my Grandfather, Lester P. Gauldin who was an artilleryman and served in France during World War I and took part in the Second Battle of the Somme.  My father told me once that his father was a stretcher-bearer, which means he was one of the men who was given the terrible task of retrieving the bodies of dead and injured comrades from the battlefield at great risk to themselves. I can't imagine the impossibility of having to do something like that, any more than I can imagine the impossible task of facing a rain of German bullets on the beach in Normandy and then facing an impenetrable wall of rock to climb.  I went to the American cemetery at Normandy in 2000 and stood in the midst of white crosses that stretched almost as far as I could see. 
Here's the group I was with, heading for the cliffside to look over the edge and towards the beach where the Americans landed on that day in June of 1944.  The magnitude of what those men accomplished is beyond belief, but the impact of being in a place where Americans defied the possible can only be felt by actually being in the place where it happened, surrounded by white crosses that stretch almost to the horizon.

This is what Americans do.  Americans do the impossible and call it their duty.  When my family came to this country they left their former alliances behind them and became American to the point where they were willing to die to defend an idea.  They were no longer Scots or English or Germans or Irish.  They didn't think of themselves or their fellow citizens as anything less than a unified people of a shared heritage, and neither do I.