The Four Chaplains and Me

I guess there are a lot of ways to grow up.

Monday’s story about the dedication of a memorial to the Four Chaplains made me wonder, as hearing the story has before: Would I do what they did?

They stood on the keel of a doomed ship during World War II, arm in arm, after helping panicked soldiers and then eventually each giving away their life jackets. The Albany post of the Jewish War Veterans gives an annual Four Chaplains award and I heard about it in Rabbinical School. I was in awe: They doomed themselves to die? And not even so that a multitude would survive: their sacrifices saved exactly 4 lives, at most. (And who were the 4 men they gave their life jackets to? Did they survive and do they even know?)

The Four Chaplains had a local connection: Rev. Clark V. Poling served the First Reformed Church of Schenectady. The others were the Rev. George L. Fox, a Methodist; The Rev. John P. Washington, a Catholic; and Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, in all likelihood a Reform rabbi. Interfaith cooperation at its finest. And I’m always surprised and pleased that a rabbi was among them, as brave and calm as the Christian clergy. They are always described at the last moment, standing arms linked on the keel of the upturned boat.

And I ask myself: Would I have done the same?

Tonight when I read the story, I found myself understanding that it would be the most natural thing in the world to do. How could I keep my life jacket on when there was a young person desperate for it? And then there’d be no time to think and no reason for hysterics: Just stand there, with my brothers in arms, and wait. Because as long as we’re alive, we act like decent human beings (menschen), and after that we don’t have to worry about how we act at all.

Now understand, I write this as someone who’s always been terrified by death. I know that I’m growing older as I glimpse something of my maternal grandfather’s equanimity: I’ve had a good life, he said as he reached his 90s, I’m ready. I really and truly hope that I will feel and think that way before the end of my life!

And last week I had a conversation on practically the same topic with my 8th and 9th grade students. We were talking about Liviu Lebrescu (see links at the bottom of this post). One of my students said she just couldn’t understand how someone could do that, stand in the door and possibly get shot, maybe die, even to save someone’s life. She said she’d want to live.

I said I completely understood that! I said I always wonder what I would do in such a situation. Then I looked toward the door and imagined someone coming into the Social Hall with a gun. And I looked at the kids sitting around the table with me and I said, “But if someone came through that door with a gun right now, I would get up and run toward them. It would be like, ‘You are not going to hurt these children! Not if I can do something about it!’”

I know that this is a classic “parent” response, often associated with the female of the species in particular. But this wasn’t about being these young people’s parent, but their teacher, in a similar relationship of responsibility and caring. It’s about being much older than they are, of a different generation: There is no way that I would see someone coming toward them to hurt them and not try to head him/her off! These young people and their well-being are my responsibility. It wouldn’t even occur to me that I might get shot. I’d just know that it was my responsibility to intervene if possible, and I’d run toward the assailant to get in the way, head him/her off, see what I could do. And probably get shot. And be quite surprised about it. But I’d tackle him/her if I could!

And that, I think, is why I am grown up. I can be flaky about deadlines and inconsistent about responses and procrastinate about phone calls and be irresponsible about I won’t even mention what. But in this way I think I have joined the older generation: I no longer see myself among the youngest, the ones who by right should be rescued, even at the price of another life, but I would want to rescue them.

I wonder if my parents’ generation still feels that way about mine?