Today I attended the funeral of my bosses mother whom I personally knew. It was a difficult thing to do, as we all grieved over our loss but rejoiced in the fact of where she was now. Something interesting that her son pointed out was the fact that she was born on September 11, a day that is remembered today but was an ordinary day back then. She was a woman of great patriotism and would go on to serve her country in the United States Air Force. It was fitting then that her memorial service would fall on Memorial Day. We honored her memory and her service as we do all those who gave us so much so that we could enjoy so much more. This story, which came out of the book "A cup of comfort for military families", blessed my heart in so many ways as it reminded me of what many of the young men and women when through to ensure out freedom. I hope it is a blessing to you as it was for me.
Without hesitation, he flipped up the rifle and pulled the trigger. The dog simply dropped. The others bolted at the sound of the gun. He didn't need to check the fallen dog, he knew it was dead. His main concern was the young calf that had almost been prey to the feral pack.
Slogging through the mud of early spring on his New Hampshire farm, Ray Fenner approached the shaken calf, head buried in the safest place he knew, near the hind leg of his mother next to her udder. The calf eyed the farmer suspiciously, fuming harsh breaths and releasing a brassy bleat; the intensity of the sound assured the calf was unharmed.
As the farmer moved toward the dog, the adrenaline began to wear off and the memory of a time long ago, when his reflexes had responded in a similar, though very different situation, began to emerge. He pushed the thoughts out of his mind.
He picked up the dog and carried it down the hill, where he dug a hole to bury it. As he looked at the dead animal one last time before shoveling the pile of wet dirt onto it, he remembered the books he had read as a boy about heroic dogs and their adventures. They had nobility and compassion that seemed to surpass that of most humans. How could such an honorable being become so vicious? Again, the memory started to push its way in. This time, he couldn't keep it away.
Toward the end of World War II, the Nazis had ravaged much of Europe, but the Allied forces were beginning to overpower them. After his first year of college studying to be a doctor, Ray joined the war effort; it had become clear every able-bodied young man was needed. After serving as a belly gunner and aerial photographer with the U.S. Army Air Corps, he was transferred to the infantry in Germany.
The liberation of the concentration camps had begun, and Ray and a platoon of soldiers were sent in to assist. When they had done all they could do to help the survivors, he and several others marched toward Belgium as the harshness of winter drew to an end.
Laughing as their boots kept getting sucked into the mud, they finally reached a sunny opening. A branch snapped nearby, and someone yelled, "Get down!" just as shots rang out. Ray landed beside his buddy, and it took him a moment to realize that his friend had been fatally shot in the neck. Enraged, he stood up and fired aimlessly. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a movement and swung his rifle. The helmet of the young Nazi solder flew off as he fell backward. There was yelling, and what was left of the Nazi platoon began to retreat into the woods.
Ray lay shaking on the ground. He had shot a man - a young man who had stood closely enough for him to see the youthful face, the frightened eyes. He rolled over and vomited.
When he could stand again, he looked across the clearing. The young man he had shot lay still, a bullet wound in the middle of his forehead, his pale blue eyes staring sightlessly skyward. Ray's stomach heaved again, but there was nothing left to expel. Slowly, he walked toward the man - a boy, really - and knelt down beside him. Tentatively, he reached for the soldier's hand and jumped back when he felt how warm it was. He'd never thought of death as being warm. He reached for the hand again and held it, fearing, but also wishing, that the solider was not really dead and would suddenly grip his hand. When he didn't, Ray knew it was true. he had killed a man.
Shaking the scene out of his head, he reached inside the uniform of the Nazi solider and found his dog tags. The name was Gerhardt Schmidt.
The somber group attended to the wounded and catalogued the dead. Three of their own had been killed. Many more of the Nazis had fallen, despite their advantage of surprise. Exhausted but unwilling to stay in this place, the U.S. soldiers picked up their gear and moved on.
As night fell, they came upon a cluster of houses somewhere near the border of Germany and Belgium. The village hadn't been touched by the war yet. Lights in the windows of the tiny houses almost made it possible to believe there was no war.
A man standing in a nearby doorway waved and began walking toward them. "May I offer you something to eat and drink?" he asked with a heavy accent.
Too tired and hungry to be weary, the soldiers gratefully accepted. They left their gear outside and followed the man into his home, warm and smelling of freshly baked bread.
"Where are you coming from?" asked the man as he offered them large chunks of bread.
Hardly able to speak as they shoved the food into their mouths, one of the soldiers managed to tell him that they'd recently arrived in Germany and were headed toward Belgium. The man assured them they had reached their goal.
Ray exhaled his relief. Between the aromas of the cottage and the kindness of their host, he felt tears sting his eyes. He looked away and tried to blink them back as the man handed him a glass and began to fill it with wine. The man looked into Ray's eyes and merely nodded as he moved on to the next soldier.
As he filled the last glass, he said, "I have no room for you to stay here, but there is a church next door where you might spend the night."
Sleepy from the bread and wine, the soldiers thanked the man for his hospitality. They picked up their gear, and the man led them into the dark church. He lit candles but soon extinguished them as the soldiers collapsed on the pews and fell almost instantly asleep.
Some time later, Ray groggily opened his eyes and looked across as a fellow solider whose face was bathed in strange colors. Thinking something must be wrong, Ray jerked his head up, but when he looked over the back of the pew he saw that the source of the odd sight was the morning sun shining through a stained-glass window. None of the others seemed to be awake yet, so he went outside.
"Guten morgen!" The man from last night called cheerily from next door as he swept his front steps. This morning he was wearing a black shirt with a white collar.
Ray waved and called "Good morning!" As he walked back toward the doorway, he stopped short and nearly choked. In the dark of the night before he hadn't noticed the sign on the front of the church: First Church of Christ, Reverend Gerhardt Schmidt. Surely, it couldn't be the same family! In a panic, Ray started to back away.
"Young man, is everything all right?" the man called.
Ray couldn't answer. He tripped over a root and fell to the ground as tears came pouring out.
The man walked quickly toward him and knelt down, taking Ray's hand in his. "My son, what is it?"
The sobs heaved so hard, Ray thought he'd be sick. "I think...I might...have killed...your...son." Ray tried again to run away, but the man's grab on his hand tightened. He pulled Ray toward him and wrapped him in his arms. Ray sobbed harder as the man rocked him slowly.
"Why don't you come inside, and I'll give you some breakfast."
The thought of food made Ray's stomach turn, but his energy to fight was gone, so he followed. The man silently poured them both some tea and sat down. A plate of sweet rolls sat on the table, waiting for the others to rouse.
"Why don't you tell me what happened?"
Ray took a deep breath and began to recount the story. The man closed his eyes as he listened; Ray saw a glint of wetness in the corners of them.
"You must hate me!" Ray blurted out and buried his head in his hands.
The man opened his eyes and turned, taking both of Ray's hands in his. "Look at me, son."
With great effort, Ray looked into the man's tear-stained face, the blur of his own tears distorting his vision. "You have done nothing wrong. You did exactly what you had to do at the time - defend your comrades against the enemy. It could as easily been you who died, but that is the way of fate and the tragedy of war; it makes us do things that nothing else in the world could. Your willingness to put yourself in this position is noble."
Ray's hands were now trembling so hard he had to withdraw them. He wanted to say something but couldn't. Sensing Ray's dilemma, the man continued.
"Let me tell you about my son." He picked something up from a nearby table. It was a picture of the man's son a few years earlier, kneeling down next to a large dog. Recognizing the blonde hair, the face that he had seen only in death, Ray hung his head and wept again.
"Young Gerhardt was a fine boy," the reverend said. "He was tall and strong like you. Though your hair is black, your blue eyes have the same intensity; I saw it when I looked at you last night. Th pain in them conveyed what you have just told me. No man's eyes should ever have to look that way."
He took a deep breath and continued on, "Once, my family and I lived on a farm in a small village in Germany. Gerhardt loved the farm. He tended all of the animals with great care. After his mother passed on, he and I managed to take care of ourselves, though not as well as she had. Gerhardt always felt great responsibility for me.
"When Herr Hitler's ideas began to seep into the minds of the people, I decided we must move away from Germany. I could sense that very bad things were coming. We made it just in time, as it became much more difficult to do so after that. But my son had already begun to believe the propaganda of the Nazis and aspired to return to Germany as soon as he was old enough to join the Army. I begged him not to, but it was not my decision to make for him. His belief, perhaps like yours, was that he would be bringing honor to his people. I recently received a letter from him saying that he had begun to doubt his beliefs. Maybe he knew that he would never be able to live with himself when he found out how he and so many others had been deceived."
Ray' voice returned, and he said softly, "but now you son is dead because of me. Aren't you angry?"
"I am angry, indeed, but not with you - especially not with you. I am furious that young men, God's beautiful children, are being sacrificed to carry out or defend against the misguided ideas of a madman. My son has lost hi life, but you have lost something that will be difficult to replace. Your task for the rest of your life will be to try to heal that part of yourself."
Voices in the distance interrupted the discussion. "My son, it is not my forgiveness you need - it is your own."
Ray remained in Europe for many months, and the war ended soon after his tour of duty was over, but something had begun that morning in Belgium. Though he would never see Reverend Schmidt again, the lesson he learned stayed with him.
After retiring home, he finished college and then applied to divinity school with aspirations of becoming a minister. In addition to recounting this story, his application essay read, "If I have the opportunity to offer and teach this kind of forgiveness, then my life will be worth living."
As the farmer placed the final shovelful of dirt over the dog, he patted it down and whispered for the thousandth time, "Please forgive me."
Epilogue: My father recounted his story to my mother after the incident with the wild dogs because it shocked him that he was still such a good shot forty years after his military service in Germany. With the compassion of one who had received profound forgiveness, my father served as a Congregationalist minister for the rest of his life, working to help mend the soul wounds of others. ~ Ellen Fenner
I am just an ordinary girl who is loved by an extraordinary God and I seek to love others the same way. I love to bake, read, do puzzles, watch Hallmark movies, and go shopping with my mom! This blog was created as a place where I could share some thoughts that the Lord has shown me and to be an encouragement to others who desire to know Him in a deeper way. My prayer is to learn to sit still and trust God with my future.
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