My dad fought in World War II. He didn’t ever talk about it much, two or three stories was all I ever heard; one about a girl, a beautiful German girl, that he regretted not marrying, and another about the boat ride across. Right before he died, in 1997, he told lots of other stories; meeting and working with Patton when he came to the continent, friends who didn’t come home, feelings of guilt, abandonment. He told me how the shrapnel came to be lodged in his leg. The world he knew ended in the 1940s, somewhere in Germany, when he chose not to follow his heart. It ended a little bit when he watched helplessly as his friends died. It ended when he looked a German soldier in the eye and knew only one of them would walk away, only one of them would have a tomorrow. It ended when he knew it wouldn’t be the young German. There was a sadness that resonated through to the core of his being when he talked about looking into that boy’s eyes—seeing the light therein, and then extinguishing it. He wondered if his enemy saw something in him to cause the split second hesitation that allowed my dad to shoot first. He wondered if it died.
The world ended for dad when he walked through the gates of Dachau.
He had a save-the-world job, once upon a time. There are times, as I look around, when I wonder if he thought it worth it. I wonder if he thought, for what? for who?
For people who think because a calendar comes to an end, that so will the world? The world is ending for someone, in some way, every day—even in the midst of great heroism. I can see him now rolling his eyes and dismissing the whole Mayan idea.
Imagine a world—the world my father fought for—in which we memorialize musicians and poets. A world in which the only hero a child need ever hear about is the Ice Cream Man. Imagine for a moment a world that didn’t need soldiers, because that’s what soldiers fight for. Not be remembered with beer and hot dogs, but so that the world doesn’t end for someone they love in some small way today, or tomorrow. They fight so those they love never need to see the light go out from someone else’s eyes. Soldiers do what they do, so those who follow won’t ever have to. We have let each and every one of them down.