Commentary

A veteran’s memory of the song

David Valen

The middle-aged, former bomber pilot walked tentatively into the hotel meeting room where the old 98th Bomb Wing was holding its first reunion. It had been 25 years since the youthful air crews had coaxed their lumbering B-47s off the runways at Lincoln.

They had endured long, lonely night missions. For weeks at a time, they were “on alert” in Spain and England, their families fatherless back home. It all had to do with deterrence, a concept that apparently worked. Now they were together again, searching for familiar faces.

The one-time lieutenant walked up to greet the colonel, a cigar-chomping, hard-nosed veteran aviator with, it turns out, a very good memory. He said, “I will never forget you!”

“What,” the younger man asked, “would make you remember me at all?”

“Well,” said the old operations officer, “you and Bud returned from a 10-hour night training mission. There was not another soul around the place; it was deathly quiet. You were in the locker room hanging up your helmets and chutes, when suddenly I heard singing — hymn singing — in harmony, even.”

I come to the garden alone,

while the dew is still on the roses;

And the voice I hear,

falling on my ear,

the Son of God discloses.

And he walks with me and he talks with me …”

“It was beautiful. I’ll never forget it.”

We don’t know what the colonel was thinking about that long-ago night, what pain he might have been enduring, what old memory was dredged up in the hearing of that hymn. Only that a couple of bomber pilots once sent forth a song into the silent night, and that a veteran ops officer can’t forget it.

Soon we will hear and sing some old songs, too. They will bring to mind that first week of Jesus life in a manger. Remember, even though there was only a handful of people actually present, the rest of us know the story because of the song.

David Valen is a retired ELCA pastor.

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