Cherry Bream, Flickr, under Share-Alike License

Friday
Nov142014

Remembrance from the Great War

He was my grandma's only brother, only sibling. He was, therefore, my great uncle, Uncle Edgar, a man who died just a few months before my mother was born. That's downtown Oostburg, where he was born and reared. He was, just then, in his twenties. He'd just signed up to fight the Great War, and he was hit by some kind of explosive, blown to pieces, according to a hand-written, eye-witness account, a letter I have in my possession. He was recognizable only by his dog tags.

The government notified his sister, my grandma, that her brother had been killed, but it took them almost two years--I have the note.  Why it took that long, I don't know; but the government claims he died on August 8, 1918, just three months before the end of the war.

All of that I've known for a long, long time because I came heir to the family documents when my grandma designated me to be the one who would keep them. What that means really is that I've got every last thing there is to know--pictures, war documents, childhood memories--about this man Edgar Hartman, my great uncle. Here it is, right beside me.

Not long ago, I got a little help with the life of Pvt. Edgar Hartman from a military historian, who did some research on his death. After all, that eyewitness account detailed exactly where it had happened in France, along the Vesle River. I just wanted to know what Uncle Edgar was a part of when he got hit. 

I'd always assumed he was in a trench. Most of the imagery of the Great War is drawn from trench warfare; but it turns out that in the Second Battle of the Marne there were no trenches. Tanks were there, as well as shifting lines in topography that is more hilly and tree-lined than the open-plains where trenches dominated. Historians claim that the Second Battle of the Marne, 1918, looked more like something from the early months of the Second World War than the quintessential trench horrors of the First.

 It was the first major battle in which American blood was shed, including my uncle's. The American Expeditionary Forces had joined with the French and the British in an effort not only to hold off a major German offensive, but to repeal it and thereby end the war. The Second Battle of the Marne was a major, decisive victory; the war ended three months after my uncle was killed.

America likes to believe its participation in the war shut it down but good. Historians are less sure. Most agree that the Americans were highly motivated and exceptionally brave, but most also make clear that they were also a little silly, and somewhat vainglorious.

Although General John J. Pershing swore that his troops would never to answer to anyone but an American, credit him with this:  once he got to the battlefield, he quickly determined that the French were the superior military force and relinquished the command, meaning my uncle Edgar died under a French commander. What Pershing understood was that they knew the war, the place, the enemy, and the tempo of conflict they'd been in for years. They knew what they were doing. 

Without the Americans, the outcome of the Second Battle of Marne might well have been different; but to say that the young and inexperienced Yankee force ended the war is, according to those who know better than I do, stretching it.

My uncle Edgar was young and as inexperienced as any of the other Yankee troops. I don't know whether his bravery outflanked his wisdom as it did some of his doughboy buddies', but somehow just knowing what the American boys were like helps me understand, fills out what was otherwise little more than a picture, colors more fully what so very little I know about him and them and the time.

Casualties were high. The U.S. lost 30,000 men, my great uncle among them. 

He was killed in what some consider the most decisive battle of the war since it was clear to the German high command, as of August, 1918, that the war was lost. The Allied forces had broken through German-held territory and chased the retreating armies back to positions they held before the spring offensive. When the Germans reached their fortified lines, their collapse ended temporarily, and the fighting--the fighting in which my uncle died--intensified.

For a month, from the first week in August to early September, the Germans stalled the French and Americans on the Vesle River, a place nicknamed "Death Valley" because of the Germans' lavish use of mustard gas. "I have rarely, if ever, seen troops under more trying conditions," one General wrote. "They were on the spot and they stayed there..." Any movement by day brought down fire, as the Germans used cannons to snipe at careless soldiers.

My great Uncle Edgar died thirty years before I was born. His parents were gone by the time he was killed. His older sister, my grandma, was his only sibling. Had he returned, I likely would have known him; WWI vets were still around when I was a boy. I remember an old man who shook constantly on his daily walks to town, a victim, my father said, of "shell shock." But maybe Uncle Edgar would have come for coffee after church at my grandma's, he and the woman he was engaged to before he left. Maybe their kids, too. They would have been my mother's cousins, the first cousins she never had.

Whether or not I want to, I think of him at least twice a year--in May and in November.  I took out the scrapbook of his pictures again this week, paged through. I'm blessed to have the story here behind me on the shelf.

Pvt. Edgar Hartman missed Armistice Day himself. He was 
already gone, so he didn't get to the end of all that horror, never saw an end to war.

Which is not to say Uncle Edgar doesn't know peace. I'm sure he does. For that I'm thankful. And for him I'm thankful too.

Friday
Oct312014

More living water

Only once in rural west Africa did I see anything like this--a man, a male, at the community well--and this time there was good reason. We were in an isolated village in Mali, far off any easily traceable beaten track, when the men, the powers-that-be, insisted that we, their honored guests, visit their wondrous village well, a gift by the way of the Japanese, the sign said. 

They didn't say it, but it was clear they were bust-your-buttons proud of that well's modernity. No ropes, no pulleys, and no buckets, save the buckets they used--the women that is--to lug all the precious cargo back to their huts.

We had to walk a ways in a desert sun so intense I wished I'd worn a cap or cape. Emphasis on had to--there are things honored guests simply have to do, and we had to witness the glory of their blessed village well.

"We don't really have a choice, do we?" I said quietly to my yankee traveling companion as we walked in heat that was almost unbearable.

He tipped his head and smiled knowingly. "No question," he said, "but out here remember, water is life."

What came to me immediately was the story of a Samaritan woman with a history of five husbands and, most recently, a live-in partner, the woman at the well, the gospel story.

At dozens of villages along the road only women did the drawing. Gender roles in an Islamic society are, to say the least, well-defined. I don't remember ever eating a meal with an African woman at the table; they prepared the food and served it up, sumptuously poured it or spooned it onto our plates, but never sat beside us. Such is Islamic life even in Christian homes.

All of which simply enriches the old gospel story, doesn't it? That Jesus was there at a well like this one was itself quite something, if I can extrapolate a bit. That he, a man, actually talked to her, a woman, had to be newsworthy. But what trumped everything was that the woman was a Samaritan, and a tough one at that, a "hard woman," my mother might say, a woman with a record she'd likely rather not print up. Jesus the Christ, the only human with clearly divine parentage, trashed all the rules, broke every last one of them, by doing little more than being human.  

There they were, the two of them, at places like this, where I had to be reminded that water is life.

It goes without saying that if you travel abroad, almost anywhere, you just don't drink the water, a rule especially difficult in overheated sub-Saharan Africa, where you simply have to drink even if you're not thirsty, a region where water is life.

That village elder at the top of the page offered us a drink of the water that blessed pump poured out richly. Warning lights flashed in my head; alarms blared in my ears. But when our Ghanian guide and friend hunched over and drank from the well, then looked at me and insisted this well was very deep and therefore safe, I drank too, hesitantly but, eventually, bountifully, the only time I actually drank the water in Africa.

Water is life after all, I reminded myself.

When we walked back to the village, I couldn't help but wonder what the Samaritan woman thought when on that exceptionally strange day she met the exceptionally strange Jew at the well, a man she said she could tell was a prophet, a man who actually spoke to her and told her in no uncertain terms that he was, of all things, the Messiah, the promised one. 

When she got back to the hut, I wonder what she said to that guy she was sleeping with. I wonder how she might have explained to him the living water because she had certainly heard something and seen someone she'd never, ever heard and seen before.

Even now, a couple weeks later, that whole wonderful gospel story is clearer, peopled by vivid characters I can see at wells I've visited firsthand. 

Like anything else, I suppose, the phrase "living water" can wear itself altogether too easily into cliche. 

Maybe it goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: when I stood there in the hot African sun, at that precious village well, I was, that afternoon and am yet today, greatly refreshed.

Friday
Oct172014

The big house is gone

It is no more, but for a 100 years in Zuni there was only one “big house.” 

To say it loomed over the pueblo risks understatement. Even in its declining years nothing in town could rival its massive triangular bulk. It was not just one-of-a-kind, it was defiantly so, as if some miscreant Kansas tornado dropped it in the middle of town.

The first buildings the Christian Reformed Church built at the Zuni pueblo were hardly spectacular, but the denomination hadn’t been in the mission business long. In fact, Rev. Herman Fryling and Andrew Vander Wagon were just about the first to leave west Michigan for mission fields teeming with what they called "the heathen." The CRC itself was only 50 years old; there wasn’t money for a mansion.

But the big mission house had to look like a mansion to Zunis, who lived in adobe homes of square-cut Zuni brick. When the big house sprouted up in 1914, nothing looked anything like it in the pueblo, nor has there been anything like it for the entire next century. Nobody else had colonial windows, a spacious front porch, or a peaked gable jutting from a huge, swooping roof line. 

The Zunis must have been as ashen-faced as those first missionaries were when they peeked at the Shalako dancers from those three upstairs windows. It’s just about impossible to imagine a cultural statement as in-your-face as “the big house” must have been when it went up, stud by straight-cut stud.

If you want to megaphone your intent to change people’s lives and hearts and their whole way of life, what on earth could the missionaries have done more effectively than put up the biggest, whitest house between Zuni and Gallup—or Zuni and Albuquerque? “Here we are,” that house preached. “Aren’t we something? Wouldn’t you like some of this too?”

Nothing could be more “American,” nothing more foreign, an American Craftsmen design that could have been from a Sears catalog but was likely created from a pattern by J. H. Davermen and Sons, house and church builders who just happened to be Dutch and CRC. Another sprawling Daverman home, probably the same floor plan, still stands at Rehoboth, just a bit east of the post office. 

That big house was an icon of the cultural aggression missionary endeavor often was—or at least facilitated—a century ago. For someone like myself, a descendant of those who exercised sometimes unyielding control over the work at the turn of the 20th century and beyond, the big house, and what it so aptly symbolized, is something of an embarrassment because nothing could be more out-of-place than a hulking Midwestern frame house smack dab in the heart of a New Mexico pueblo. 

Maybe it was high time that big house came down. Maybe it’s a crime it took an entire century.

But a house becomes a home once it’s lived in, no matter how monstrous its style.  Zuni Mission’s two-story Daverman has been home, not only to dozens of families, but hundreds, even thousands of guests, Native and Anglo. It's heard a couple million prayers, lots of them said aloud and a gazillion more uttered in silence. 

Real people lived in “the big house,” and real people have loved there too. They laughed hard I’m sure, and cried and fought hard too, and some, regrettably, left in huff. It’s seen more than its share of life.

But a thousand heart-felt reconciliations have been made beneath its broad, sloping roof, lots and lots of human stories, some maybe a bit too intimate to retell, all of that life sheltered and sustained within those four wide walls. One early missionary conducted a good business as a dentist by pulling teeth right there in the kitchen.

One sad night in 1971, the fire that ravaged the mission threatened the big house next door. Zuni residents came to the rescue and hauled everything out to the river. Kathleen Klompien remembers seeing her refrigerator tip when it was lifted it up and out of the kitchen; she will never forget what was inside spilling out as they dragged that monster outdoors amid the smoke and heat so intense it broke windows and blistered paint. 

After that devastating fire, those who worshiped in the sanctuary that burned down moved their worship to the big house basement, where the ceiling was so low that the hymns they sang had to rattle even those cement walls. 

Verna Chimoni is downright disgusted about its demise. She claims it really should have become a museum because so much history was lived within its walls. She hasn’t forgotten professing her faith in the basement, where she also baptized her daughter. The big house wasn’t a symbol of suppression or degradation to Verna Chimoni; it was a holy place. 

People lived life there, ate and drank, played Monopoly and Rook and Uncle Wiggly, raised kids, had friends over, drank endless cups of coffee, baked a hundred thousand cookies. Old Zuni women used to knit together in the dining room.

When demolition of the big house began, dozens of tiny holes showed up in old cardboard insulation upstairs, where a couple of residents, boys, shouldered their BB guns and shot at targets and once in a while even themselves. Some of those BBs were still there years later.

Bannisters became slippery slides. The boys from the preacher’s downstairs apartment once strung wires up and a pair of tin cans so they could talk to the boys from the teacher’s family upstairs.

One young teacher kept a pet crow in a back room upstairs until that crow took off and got thumped by a car at the intersection just outside the front door. Ouch. In a flash, that dead crow was salvaged by a Zuni who had to think himself as blessed to come heir to a supply of sable feathers for Zuni ritual. Pity the poor teacher.

That big house may well be a symbol of cultural oppression; but most of those who lived there in the last century can remember times when someone—male or female, young or old, Zuni or Navajo or Anglo—showed up, any hour of the day or night, in a fit of turmoil that made being anything less than a good Samaritan unthinkable.

In the early 90s, a number of factors merged to put the whole Zuni Mission at great risk—low school enrollment, lack of funds, and other factors. News got out that the whole mission was tottering. People from the pueblo told Pastor Mike not to let it happen, not because they were Christians, not because they’d ever professed the name of the God those missionaries have talked about for an entire century; but because, they said, the big house and the mission downtown was a citizen whose presence, they said, would be sorely missed. 

Such unsolicited comments were a joy, he says. When he asked them why they felt that way, some claimed they like to think of that big house and the mission itself as “a place of peace.”

Think of it this way. The big house fit in the pueblo like wingtips jutting out from a Navajo blanket, an ungainly symbol of perceived cultural superiority that could have made mission work doubly and triply difficult.

But it was still sad—for everyone who has ever been there, inside and out—to see that massive icon tumble because through a century at the Zuni pueblo the big house became a home for hundreds of real people, even a church when it had to be. 

Through an entire century of mission life, it has done far more than the old Heathen Mission committee ever asked. It became a great big, ungainly place of peace. 

Friday
Oct032014

Relics

What I can't help but notice, almost daily, is that I'm running low on holy water. Truth is, this Protestant has never opened this elegant little bottle, never sprinkled its contents on anything, never tried out its holy potential. It stands atop my file now with a gaggle of other memorables, the blest water within dissipating to wherever sealed holy water goes when it disappears. 

Three years ago I bought this sweet keepsake--two euros--at the shrine to St. Boniface in Dokkum, the Netherlands, a sort of open-faced house of worship that celebrates the life of a priest who may well have been Europe's most famous martyr. He already had a great vitae by the time some pagan Frisians offed him. He'd brought Christianity to the pagans, after all. He's the patron saint of Germany. 

Some historians pooh-pooh his tactics because his methods were extreme, well, primitive. He cared not a whit for what we'd call today the indigenious culture of those to whom he brought the gospel.  

The most famous tale of his saintly life surrounds his felling of Thor's Oak, a huge tree--so saith posterity--whose massive size made it a shrine, as in pagan. Boniface would have nothing to do with heresy, so he cut the monster oak down.  Some say that at the moment he was at it with his axe, a miraculous straight-line wind came along and broke the thing divinely into four chunks. The felling of Thor's Oak was the kind of mighty deed that sped his ascension to sainthood.

But he lost his head in Friesland when a gang of the world tallest heathens martyred him for destroying their shrines.  The date was June 5, the day before Pentecost, 754 A.D.

I couldn't resist the holy water. The bottle is beautiful, don't you think?--its water drawn right from the spring at the shrine of St. Boniface. But mysteriously now, this elegant little bottle is losing its currency. 

I can joke about it. My pseudo-sophistication allows me some comfortable distance from such spiritual tomfoolery. Besides, I had two dogs in that historic hunt. I'm a believer, after all; sometime--who knows?--some ancient barbarian ancestor may well have got himself converted by St. Boniface. Almost had to be. On the other hand, I can't help but be a bit proud of those hearty Frisians who did away with the man who belittled them. Truth is, both sides are worth telling.

Maybe that's why this pretty little bottle is precious to me, even though it's losing its holy cargo. Sometime, post-mortem, my kids will pick it up and toss it forthwith, as glibly as their ancestors did away with a saint. But to me, with or without its holy water, it's precious because, like any other symbol, it is what it is and so very much more. That little relic will hold that entire story even when the water is long gone. That's why it stands here today right behind me. It's not going anywhere yet.

Years ago, a funeral for one of my wife's aunts was held on a frigid January afternoon, one of those clear winter days when everyone in the county wonders why anyone lives out here in the face of a prairie wind so cold it'll take off your face. It was so bitter that afternoon that even though a caravan of mourners made its way out to the cemetery for the burial, there was no committal. The cold was simply too brutal.  

We watched from the car as the pallbearers lifted that casket from the back of the hearse and placed it on the brass set up beneath the snapping folds of a tent around the open grave. But no one--mostly it was old folks anyway--got out of the cars because the pastor had made clear that it was too cold for a psalm and prayer in that northwest wind.

But another aunt, a sister of the deceased, got out of her husband's car and walked, determined and alone, to the gravesite, stood there alone in the cold and took a single flower from the bouquet atop the casket, then brought that single flower with her back to the car. That reverential honor, borne out of love, I'll never forget.

And that memory explains the single blade of blue stem beneath the bottle in the picture above. I remembered the way that near-ninety-year-old aunt insisted on a flower from her sister's casket, how she walked alone through the snow to that canopy, took a sprig of color, then hesitantly traced her own footsteps through the snow back into the warmth of the car. 

Just last Saturday, I grabbed the one blade of blue stem some groundskeeper missed with the weed-whacker in a small-town South Dakota cemetery.  There it was--see it? Well, now it's here.

I pulled it up from the gravesite of a woman whose life I'm still trying to trace and understand, and now it's here on the shelf beside what little holy water I still have and a gallery of museum pieces no one else would find of any value. 

You'll just have to trust me when I say that single blade of prairie grass is far more than what it is.

Where does it come from in us?--this need to remember, to preserve, to hold to something larger than we are? Maybe I'm speaking just for myself here, but I think we all need to be awed. We're not really whole without something to reverence.

The truth is, I'm about out of holy water.  I guess I'll live.  

But there are images, even little idols in my life, and they're all around me, bringing comfort and good cheer; they seem to accumulate with every passing year.  What's sits and stands right now behind this Protestant, as I sit here at the keyboard this morning, is an open-faced shrine bedecked with fetishes, all of which proves, I think, what's there in the creed I've recited a thousand times:  really, every last one of us is part of the holy catholic church, even the Calvinists.

We do want to honor. We do want to worship. All of us.

Friday
Sep192014

Savior of Silent Stone

Dowa Yalanne is the kind of place that really deserves the word monumental. There it stands like a momentary eruption stopped in time, a bundle of fisted hands reaching skyward, not necessarily aspiring, but signalling power and strength that some who live in its presence quite understandably call eternal.

At least three times--maybe more--the Zuni people took refuge on top the mountain. I've never been up there, but some I know who have been say it's full of holy places. The Zunis hid from the Spanish, the Mexicans, and the Apaches up there, where the world at the top is so wide you can't see to the other side. There's room to live up top, and lots of reasons for an enemy to turn his horse around and simply go home once he looks up its dusky cliffs. For 7000 years, Dowa Yalanne was a citadel of strength, a savior to those who lived in its presence.

It looms almost parentally over the Zuni pueblo just as it has since men and women first began to think of the world beneath the mountain as the birthplace of life itself. You want to know where the Zuni came from?--there's a place just down the road.  For thousands of years for thousands of Zunis all of life was right here in the shadow of the mountain.

Think of it this way: Dawa Yalanne has astonishing stage presence, so much of it that volumes of Zuni lore originate in its caves and promintories. Once upon a time, when the whole world was flooded, a gargantuan sea monster bit off a chunk of the mountain. Two promintories are the pinnacles from which two children jumped to their deaths to save the people (versions of that story may well have moderated over the years). The mountain is not simply a citizen of the pueblo, it is, in a way, its magistrate. There it stands, always, perfectly indomitable.  

But there's nothing there to tell the epic story of a people who've been in residence right in this very spot longer than any people have been anywhere on the continent. Some say 7000 years. You won't learn that at the foot of the mountain.

There are no historical markers, no signs or displays anywhere to tell the stories, because the Zunis really don't want people around their mountain; they are of the belief that there's just too much divinity, too much precious, too much of the people's heart and soul and mind right here. They're not looking for crowds.

 

So unless you know the stories from your grandma, the only joy you'll take away from a visit to Dowa Yalanne is the grace it bestows simply by its magnificent presence. The Zunis don't really care if you don't know what happened on their mountain. It's their story, and if you're not one of them, it's not yours.

Even though I've read a little history, I stood there at the place where the sea monster bit off a chunk of the mountain, and I couldn't help but wish that someone would tell me the story.

If you're not Zuni, you can always read what you can of the mountain elsewhere; you can page through its myths and legends. And you can go there and listen. Sometimes there is far more to meet the soul in a space where there seems to be nothing at all. If you do go, don't make a fuss. Be still.

But you're on your own. No one will tell you the story. No one will preach the Zuni word, precious as it may be to them. No one will ask you to believe.

Some call the Zuni, even today, a mysterious people. If you stand there, alone, in the silence, maybe you'll understand.