True Happiness in Times like These: The Lesson from my Fallen Uncle

Written on the 70th anniversary of his death for another:

He comprehends his trust, and to the same keeps faithful with a singleness of aim;

And therefore does not stoop, nor lie in wait for wealth, or honours, or for worldly state, or mild concerns of ordinary life;

But who, if he be called upon to face some awful moment to which Heaven has joined great issues, good or bad for human kind, Is happy as a Lover; and attired with sudden brightness, like a Man inspired.

He to whom neither shape of danger can dismay, nor thought of tender happiness betray; Who, not content that former worth stand fast, looks forward, persevering to the last.

Or if he must fall to sleep without his fame, and leave a dead unprofitable name, finds comfort in himself and in his cause;

And, while the mortal mist is gathering, draws His breath in confidence of Heaven’s applause:

This is the happy Warrior; this is he whom every Man in arms should wish to be.

- “The Happy Warrior” by William Wordsworth, 1770-1850

…….

My father is the only one in the faded photograph who still draws breath.

He was a boy of fifteen when the family photo was taken: the day before his eldest brother Bob left forever to serve as the youngest officer on the doomed Canadian destroyer HMCS Athabaska.

My younger father stares soberly into the camera, bearing the same troubled look as every other member of his family, save one: nineteen year old Bob himself, whose easy and gentle smile seems untouched by the war that waits to engulf him.

One of the sailors who survived the Germans’ torpedoing of the Athabaska seven decades ago this evening, on April 29, 1943, described, later, how Bob wore the same confident radiance in the dark and icy waters of the English Channel as men died about him. He recalls how Bob tried leading the ship’s survivors in song to keep their spirits and them alive, as the ship sank and the waters burned with deisel oil.

And in the midst of the carnage, Bob actually gave up his lifejacket to a wounded man.

Last week, I held the old Annett family photograph in my hands as my Dad sipped his scotch and remembered his last memory of brother Bob.

“He could have spent his embarkation leave in town, whooping it up, or seeing his fiancee Elaine. But instead he drove out to see me, his kid brother, and he roused me out of bed and wrestled with me and cheered me up. He was that kind of a guy”.

I gazed at the snapshot and said,

“From the looks of all of you, it’s like you all knew he was going to die”

Dad nodded, and replied softly, and unashamedly awed,

“And look at his smile”

To those accustomed to the sluggish death we like to call peace time, the highest concern one can bestow on another is the admonition to “Be safe”. Even my closest friends tell me that all the time, as if safeguarding one’s own life is some kind of bottom line. It wasn’t for my Uncle Bob, nor is it for anyone like him who discovers the secret of life.

The same people who puzzle over how Bob is the only one smiling in that final photograph are the same ones who comment with regret that Bob died because he gave away his lifejacket, as if it would have been possible for him to do anything else when faced with another man drowning from his wounds.

The desperate selfishness of “everyday” life spares us the chance to be fully human that is thrust so starkly upon on us by war. And so far too many of us go away sad and troubled by the actions of shining lights like my Uncle Bob, never understanding the drama: like the crowd who encountered Jesus on his cross and saw only bloodshed.

How habitually do we struggle to shore up the unsalvageable – our own mortal life – and refuse to live for that one moment when we find our real purpose in life by giving up our life entirely for what is right and necessary.

Perhaps Bob was so radiant in that final family photograph because he knew that his own special moment was approaching; and knowing his own measure and loving what he saw, he knew he would not fail. As for the others in the picture, how could their sadness be anything but their knowledge that they could not share in Bob’s moment?

We do not live in a time of peace, as much as we pretend we do. The war in which we are all now immersed, like all wars, is rapidly clarifying everything with the same simple truth, and choice, given to my Uncle Bob in the cold waters: If we do not act, others will die.

The particular happiness of true warriors is that they can devote every moment to the service of that deed, which is after all, the essential thing. And for those who shrink back from such necessary action, there is no remedy, and no ultimate happiness.

That is why I can’t understand or give consideration any longer to the multitudes of “concerned” but immobilized people who shrink back from doing what is necessary to save not only the lives of children, but our lands and our liberties, now, amidst this final war being waged against humanity by a global machinery of death.

At desperate moments like this, hope does come to us, but always at a great cost.

What does awaken us are living examples of a true man, or woman, who show that we are not measured by our capacity to “Be safe”, but rather, to be True, regardless of the cost.

That is the secret of Bob’s smile, and of my own: a reflection of the special opportunity granted to every human being, which no tyrant can rob from us, and no cataclysm can undo.

Will you seize that noble chance?