by Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News
Memorial Day 2021 at Lancaster Cemetery was a welcome return to a bit of normalcy, as the tradition of remembering the fallen in service to country was welcomed back by a large gathering of local citizens and military folks that spanned many generations.
With color guards and traditions on full display, the beautiful surroundings of the Veterans Court of Honor on this warm spring day gave those in attendance a chance to pick up where they left off over a year ago, when these types of gatherings were halted.
When the management at Lancaster Cemetery asked if I would be interested in being the keynote speaker I was a bit overwhelmed, as I figured this honor would be reserved for a modern-day warrior and not a guy who reflects on the past. As I thought about it and talked it through, it kind of hit me that maybe what the world needs today is a bit of reflection and a look back to help folks find a pathway for their emotions as we recover from this past year. I chose to share a story of true sacrifice that ended up in a well-maintained grave at Lancaster Cemetery — a young man who traveled halfway around the world to train at Lancaster’s War Eagle Field during a time of war, never to see home or family ever again.
Memorial Day is a day of reflection that honors all the fallen men and women from all conflicts fought in the name of freedom — a day not specific to individuals, but to a mindset that bonds them all together in sacrifice.
Royal Air Force Pilot trainee Meyer Himelstaub has been the subject of many of my stories over the years. His tragic death here in America, where he was learning to fly under the Lend-Lease Act, pulls at the heartstrings of anybody that understands the loss of a loved one far from home, whether in combat or training for war. When it came time for me to speak, there was no script to read from. What I wanted to say came from the heart. I just wanted to connect to others and to let them know that the struggles of today are something we have in common with past generations, who found a way to overcome.
A recap of my Memorial Day speech is not the topic of my column this week. The words I have already spoken will not become any more meaningful if repeated, but what I did find that can put things in a better perspective is a letter home by one of the other Royal Air Force cadets who trained in Lancaster. It tells the story of what was on the line in 1942 in an England that was confused, scared and facing the unknown, as only a son called into service by his country can say to his Mother from halfway around the world.
My Dearest Mother,
Your first letter arrived yesterday. You cannot imagine how glad I was to have it, not only because I was anxious for news of you, but because it has been a sort of tonic for me — a tonic that in my selfishness, I think I have needed rather badly. Let me explain,
When we arrived in Canada and had unlimited food and saw streetlights again and shops filled with expensive luxuries and mixed with people whose lives were not immediately conditioned by the war — well, it was like a sudden release from the nightmare. Now here at my duty station in the States, we have done some hard work and the hospitality from people who have got a lot to give and know how to give makes me forgetful a little too often of you and Dad and Pamela, and some of my friends whom I have left home.
And now your letter comes as a sharp and timely reminder. And perhaps now is the best time for me to pause and appraise the world you live in not despite, but because of the difference from my own. You, as I did with you, have gotten accustomed to privation by slow degrees. You suffered no wrench of discomfort in the way I have been privileged to enjoy in the reverse direction, and consequently you cannot imagine yourself in your old world.
You and everybody in that world of ours is going through hell. You do not realize it — I do. That is the point I am trying to make. You are not particularly unhappy, partly because you have purpose — you are striving desperately to win this grim war instead of indulging in mean, selfish pleasures. Deep down inside you all, overriding discomfort and the pain of loss, you are calm and determined and slightly proud. No one with saintly qualities can be unhappy.
Americans are kind, their way of life is remarkably similar to ours in every way. My work here cannot last forever. When I return home, they will probably give me a few days leave, perhaps weeks, before putting me operational flying with all its risks. Perhaps I shall get shot down and killed (I am frank enough not to indulge in mock heroics.)
Soon those of us who are now here will have to draw even more deeply from the well of our hidden virtues, if we are not to crack under the strain of individual air battles against the enemy. There is a lot of goodness in each one of us. Why it should require a modern war, with all its terrible consequences to women and children and the old people, and its nonsensical prejudice and hatred, to bring it all out is a question that perhaps only God can answer.
It is this, rather than any mad urge to kill Germans or even stamp out Hitlerism. England has or had, until the beginning of this war, many faults, yet I am English, and I love my country very deeply. And I believe that England, despite her faults, is worth fighting for and dying for if need be.
And now I must stop, May God watch over and take care of you through this winter of bombing and darkness and give you strength to survive if the worst comes with hunger and in the cold. May the time be short until we return, strong in numbers and determination and skill, to bear our lion’s share in the defeat of the enemy and in fitting the world for a just peace for all time.
Your ever-loving son,
We face many challenges in the world today and it’s easy to say it’s never been as bad as it is now, but less than 100 years ago the world struggled and endured countless hardships and evils. Individuals like Peter kept it all in perspective and realized that coming together as a people and as a family of mankind was going to be the real strength that would see people return to a normalcy that can so easily be lost, in a world in chaos and war. This was the simple message I tried to convey in my Memorial Day message: that something as simple as a gathering of like-minded people, in a setting surrounded by messages of service and sacrifice, is the one important thing that can bring us all together and tell us we are not alone in our struggles. There are honorable people willing to risk their all for strangers and family and give them a chance at freedom, security and a chance to live in peace.
Until next time, Bob out …