On Christmas night 70 years ago, my father sat down at a typewriter to write a letter to his family in Illinois. The heading reads “Somewhere in France – Via Battalion Typewriter.”
I know now that Dad was in the Alsace Lorraine region of France, housed in large “barnlike structures” at Camp Oberhoffen, an old Napoleonic cavalry post. The 63rd Infantry, of which he was a part, had docked at Marseille less than three weeks earlier. They had taken a “crowded, miserable, 3-day train ride” in unheated boxcars to the mountains.
It was bitterly cold that Christmas. Two units of the 63rd were already on the line, part of Task Force Harris, though Dad’s 254th Regiment was officially in reserve. Dad had just turned 19 in November. He was far away from family. His unit would soon be part of some of the most difficult battles in the closing months of World War II.
Yet Dad begins his letter with “Well, it was a good Christmas,” though with the caveat “as good as possible under the circumstances.” There was a “marvelous dinner” of turkey with all the fixings. Extra provisions of beer and candy bars (he traded his beer for more candy). The “real honest-to-goodness Christmas present” of mail from home, the first in weeks. The promise of bathing the next day, as the unit had finally set up shower in a few tents. And so, at the close of the letter, he ruminates:
I’ve been doing some thinking, and come to the conclusion that I am pretty lucky in some ways. There are a heck of a lot of men lying in foxholes who would love to be sitting by this little stove as I am doing now, typing by the light of a portable generator. I had plenty of food, I have a nice soft straw mattress to retire to, and I am in no immediate danger. From here we can hear guns rolling all the time from the front, but none of it reaches us.
As I look at our world 70 years later, there is much that distresses me. There is war. There is poverty. There is disease. There is injustice. And I have far more than the small stove, portable generator, food, and straw mattress that made Dad feel “pretty lucky.” Dad, at 19, reminds me that I need to be very aware of my own privilege in the context of the struggle for the causes of safety, justice, and comfort for others.
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I’ve recently started fledgling steps on a practice of yoga and mindfulness. One mantra that resonated with me in my first meditation class is a series of hopes – for ourselves, for those we love and those we don’t, for those in distress, for our world. It ends:
Let all beings be safe,
Let all beings be healthy,
Let all beings be happy,
Let all beings live with ease.
That “Camp Oberhoffen” that Dad wrote from 70 years ago translates into English as “Camp Ever Hope.” I’m not sure if Dad knew that when he was there, but his letter indicates that, at least on Christmas night, he was embracing the name in a very non-ironic way.
I’d like to do the same on this Christmas – be ever hopeful for the safety, health, happiness, and ease of all beings.