It was kind of odd to ponder over a dinner date with my bride last night that this time last week (give or take some hours due to time zones) I was wandering the aisles of a farmers market in Turkey followed after a stroll by an enjoyable light meal on the covered patio of a nearby café. Covered was important as I was treated to a thunderstorm – I love the rain.
During my flight that day up from South Africa, I got to stop briefly in Dubai and then Doha. And while those skylines (particularly Dubai) were just as amazing as all the documentaries, it was an article I read in an Australian newspaper of all things in the lounge in Doha that kind of weaves this tangled mess of thoughts together, at least in my head, if not on paper.
The article covered the funeral the previous day of one Claude Choules, accepted as being the last known surviving combatant of the Great War as it was originally known – before even greater horrors descended and we decided to number them. Claude served in the British navy, but moved to Australia shortly after the war and lived there the rest of his very long life of some 110 years. So he was not the last “digger” as the Australian servicemen were known, but having lived in Australia for over 80 years the ties are strong. Coincidentally, longevity is at the forefront of our family this past week with the 100th birthday of my wife’s great aunt Mert.
It occurred to me that the changes Aunt Mert and this man had seen over the course of their lives are almost unimaginable. Those I have witnessed in my 40 odd years are amazing enough.
I mean, here I was in Qatar on the Arabian Peninsula. This area had been ruled in one sense or another by any number of foreign powers over the centuries and was the subject of a treaty between the British and the Ottomans at the beginning of the war. I was on my way to Turkey, where I hope one day to visit the beaches of Gallipoli where Australia in many senses found some sense of national identity and as a fledgling nation, stood up and was counted on the world stage. The bravery and valor of the men on both sides is undiminished by the stupidity and the sheer pointlessness of the combat in which they were pitted against each other. I had started the day in South Africa, a country that has undergone tremendous upheaval, and which I had been fortunate to visit some 21 years previous and just after the release of Nelson Mandela from his long imprisonment.
Sometimes I think I am at risk of taking my life for granted. I am incredibly fortunate to have travelled the world, mostly on someone else’s tab. I have had the amazing opportunity to have worked on every continent although I am excluding Antarctica – hardly anyone gets to work there, but that would be awesome. My current passport less than five years old bears stamps to that effect with the exception in that period of Asia. And it has about run out of pages with space for stamps. I guess for me, the travel associated with my job has become normal, at least in the sense that it is something I do regularly – it is a normal part of my life.
But I do realize that for most people, the travels that are part of my job are anything but normal. It is sobering to think that particularly for men like Claude Choules more than 90 years ago, were it not for a war, they may never have seen much in the way of foreign soil. And a long and dangerous journey by sea voyage was more than likely not going to be required. No hopping on a plane on Friday night in Johannesburg to wake up to sunrise the next morning over a middle eastern city for all the world more modern and contemporary than most in the USA.
So this Memorial Day, I will remember a generation now forever gone who gave their all in the Great War and in the peace and hard times of the depression years that followed must have hoped they had done enough to never see the like of it again. A generation who must have felt in some ways utterly betrayed when the world was again engulfed in another conflict of unimaginable horrors. A generation whose own children were thrown into the fray of that 2nd global conflict and have been tagged “The Greatest Generation”.
I am not sure what makes one generation greater than another, but the words of the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley and made famous in a movie of the same name ring in my ear. For me they are a glimpse of how one might have mentally survived the trials and tribulations of these and unfortunately so many other wars waged since. But this is not an argument over who has suffered the most. Has a mother who lost her child to drug abuse, suicide, or being beaten to death for being different suffered any less than the mother of a fallen soldier? Is the person shackled by poverty or prejudice even in this country of such riches and opportunity any less unjustly imprisoned than Mandela? Instead of the haunting strains of Taps or the Last Post then, I find hope and courage for what lies ahead in these words…
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
William Ernest Henley