Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On Prayer & Memory: A Story from WWII

For the holiday, I visited a friend's family. I met a WWII veteran during the trip. I only know him as Mr. Jenkins. He is 92 years old and a neighbor to my friend's family. He was invited to join the family for Thanksgiving dinner. He already had plans for the meal, but stopped by later in the afternoon to say hello. My friend's mother gave him a piece of pecan pie to enjoy later in the day.

Mr. Jenkins is known to the family as a talker. I was sitting in the dining room, petting a puppy and listening to Mr. Jenkins and my friend's mother converse. At one point in the conversation, the matriarch said, "Trevar, Mr. Jenkins flew B-17s in WWII."

Mr. Jenkins proceeded to tell me a story. He told me he still struggles with the war in his past, at least two to three times daily. Mr. Jenkins was in WWII before the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He told me he still struggles with the war in his past, at least two to three times daily. For those of you didn't just do the math in your head, the attack on Pearl Harbor happened 69 years ago. He told me he still struggles with the war in his past, at least two to three times daily.

Mr. Jenkins then recounted a story from his experience in the war. He started by telling me about his best friend in the war. He told me his name and the nicknames they gave each other. "In a group of men, you're always drawn more to one of them. I knew we would be friends when I saw Bobby. His name was Robert Brown, but I called him Bobby. He always called me Jenks."

One day, Mr. Jenkins was scheduled to go on a routine flying mission. No fighting, just flying. Bobby wanted to go, because a large portion of his men were at the other end of the flight and he wanted to see them. However, Bobby was not scheduled on this routine flight. He asked Mr. Jenkins if he could take his place. "No. The paper work is already all filled out. I'm going."

"Please, Jenks."

Bobby pled and won, to the chagrin of Mr. Jenkins. When the planes returned, Mr. Jenkins immediately noticed one missing overhead. He went to the hanger and looked at the serial numbers on the planes. They would refer to the planes by the last three numbers of the serial. "Where is 813?" he asked a man walking by him.

No response.

Some of the men avoided Mr. Jenkins. He searched, but could not find 813. Mr. Jenkins didn't know why he was asking, since he knew the answer, but he kept asking. "Where is 813?" He finally stopped one of the young men and asked him where the plane was. It had gone missing.

Mr. Jenkins said he didn't cry. He dropped to the ground, but he didn't cry. He was a 23 year-old officer and most of the others were 18, 19. He found a strength outside of himself, a strength for the younger men. Sixty-nine years later, at 92 years old, the first war story Mr. Jenkins told me was the story where he lost his best friend. He didn't cry, but I could see the tears falling on the inside.

He didn't say he regret that moment. He didn't tell me it should have been him instead of his friend. He simply told the story he's been telling for sixty-nine years. After the loss of his friend, Mr. Jenkins was soon transferred to a desk job back in the states. He said he couldn't handle being in the war anymore. "I'm glad none of my boys have experience what I experienced there."

After Mr. Jenkins left, I returned to reading Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer. Early in the book, a Rabbi says, "Memories are small prayers to God." I think that Rabbi is right.

God doesn't need us to say "Dear God, ... Amen" in order for us to be praying. For me, taking prayer requests is prayer and the "Dear God, ... Amen" is a formality we partake in for tradition's sake. God knows our hearts and where our concerns lie. Making the request--remembering--is better than the ways we pray.

In remembering, we acknowledge our ignorance of how to pray, the impossibility of the prayers we pray. When we put words to these prayers, we condescend to God, asking God to watch over things God is already watching over, asking for care of things for which God is already caring. When we remember, God knows where our concerns lie. We share each others concerns and God's concerns.

I remember Mr. Jenkins.

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