Sherod and I flew to San Diego on Thursday night. It’s some vacation time for me and for Sherod, another time to gather with his brother gunship pilots at the Aerial Rocket Artillery Association.
This morning, I braved the streets and highways of San Diego to get some camera supplies I needed, while Sherod attended the regular business meeting that happens on the last day of these annual gatherings. We’d talked about going for lunch at a place in Del Mar, north of San Diego. We knew one of the guys who was in Sherod’s flight group in Vietnam, Jerry, and his wife, Georgia, were coming with us. We asked two other couples to join us as well, but only Jim and Rose were able to do so. The restaurant we were going to was too full and we lucked into another joint, not on the beach like the first one, but close enough, with plenty of space and enough quiet for the three couples to sit for a long lunch.
Of the three guys, Sherod is the only one who is divorced and remarried. When talk turned to the R&R leave they all got about midway through their tour in Vietnam, it was funny, and awkward, and I found myself wondering what it would have been like to fly out to Hawaii to meet a young warrior for just a very few days in a crazy-weird in-between time and place. Hawaii is so much closer to Vietnam than Alabama—and by the time these guys met their wives and girlfriends there, they had already seen so much. I think I’d probably have had a harder time letting go of the person I loved—I would already have known too much about the loneliness and fear that would travel home with me as he flew in the opposite direction.
I listened to more than two hours of stories, some so funny I laughed till my sides ached. Some were white-knuckle stories of the crazy risks young men at war take, pushing their war machines way past the envelope of endurance they were built for. At one point, Sherod stopped and told the story of a conversation he had with his ‘Gram’—the grandmother he absolutely adored. It was many years after the war and somehow they got to talking about whether or not Gram had worried if Sherod would make it back. She told him she hadn’t. Instead, every night, she would get on her knees by her bed and pray for him and all the others he was fighting with. She said she’d pray until she was so sleepy she’d be afraid she might topple over so she’d get in bed, and keep on praying until she did actually go to sleep.
Jim, who is about as wild a man as I know, had ordered a chocolate croissant to have for desert but started on it a bit before our entrees were brought out. Before too long, Rose, his wife, gently pulled the plate toward her. The meal continued, the stories continued to unfurl, and then after everyone was almost finished eating, I watched Rose carefully, gently, break that partly-eaten croissant in smaller pieces. She took one and handed the plate to Georgia, who took a piece as well before handing the plate to me, and then I did the same, a ritual that as a priest I know down to my bones. “Take, eat. Do this for the remembrance” The plate went on to Jerry, then to the other two guys. The conversation never stopped. I don’t suppose anyone noticed this moment except me.
Eucharist is about remembrance— remembrance of love, of sacrifice, of life and death. It is also about promise, a horizon of eternity. The promise today, at that slightly wobbly table in Del Mar, was more bittersweet than most I am a part of Sunday in and Sunday out. I have been struck, watching a band of rapidly aging guys, whose wives now have serious health issues and whose children, and children’s children, and even children’s children’s children, tell their own stories of hardship and joy. The men are more stooped over. They walk more slowly. Their eyes may still flash with the mischief and life of a young man flying a helicopter, but now I think all of us who, in one way or another, are a part of this band know the days are getting shorter and fewer and not one single one of the days and reunions and lunches and stories should be taken for granted. If for no other reason than that, this was a holy meal, a holier meal than most I get to share with others.
Tonight there will be a banquet, lots of pictures taken, a guest speaker who is a well known correspondent from the days of Vietnam, lots of hugs and a promise of “Next year in Savannah”. But it’s that time out of time, when bread was broken and shared in remembrance and thanksgiving that matters most, it seems to me.