SUNDAY EVENING HYMN
I work in an emergency room as a HUC. Most medical folks will know this stands for Health Unit Coordinator. It’s the person in every unit of a hospital who is the ‘hub.’ We facilitate moving people, connect other doctors with our doctors, call Flight for Life and generally do some serious multi-tasking during a 12-hour shift. Some HUCs are born to do this job. I was not. My high school basketball coach nicknamed me ‘Space Cadet’ for appropriate reasons. She could loudly explain something, actively demonstrate it, remind me to do it on the way down the court and I would still forget. Not willfully or stubbornly, just naturally. I was born a word person, not a detail person. I have to work very hard at my job for the first six hours.
For the last six hours, I don’t have to work at all. I switch places with the second HUC and grab a rolling computer and enter my element. For six hours I file in and out of patient rooms and update their account or register them for a new account. I meet all kinds of people and wish I had six more hours on each shift to hear their stories. The fading glory of my job comes from the fact that I routinely have the chance to meet WWII vets. I say ‘fading’ because before my years of working at the hospital are up, all of these men will be gone. Literally. I will never have another chance to shake their hand and another chapter of triangular flags, gently held with white gloves, and handed slowly to a remaining family member will come to a close.
The fellows from this era have my heart. Even my cursory knowledge of what many of these WWII vets endured is sobering. Most of them have tucked those experiences into separate mental boxes that are never opened. But, every so often, I’ll meet a fellow who talks. I’ve heard some stories, but as one gentleman put it, “I only tell the good ones.’ The look in his eyes when he said those words let me know he had a few closed boxes he wouldn’t be opening. While his spoken words inspired my interest, his unspoken words inspired a reverent awe.
The Civil War is my next favorite era–the word ‘favorite’ being used extremely loosely. Reading about battles between different country’s fighting men piqued my interest at a young age but reading about battles between men who lived in the same country was stupifying. Really? Did the U. S. troops really work hard to kill other U. S. troops?–questioned my disbelieving ten-year-old mind.
My fascination with war is still a bit of a query to me, but it’s been with me as early as 5th grade when Mr. Rude assigned a culminating history project. We could sculpt something, engineer something, interview someone or create a multi-faceted booklet. Being a word person, I was intrigued by the word ‘booklet,’ so I delved into learning more about the Civil War and painstakingly produced quite the final project. It was many pages long and covered it all—or at least what I thought was important. The cover was bright orange construction paper with two carefully drawn rifles touching each other at the tips of their affixed bayonets. For the final page, I drew a picture of Generals Grant and Lee sitting at a table in the McLean house for the surrender. My young mind had conjured the details of that conversation as I tried to wrap my mind around years of incessant killing that was suddenly stopped by a simple truce, and it went something like this:
Lee: “Well, Ulysses, I’m here. My men are tired. I am, too. I am ready to surrender, on one condition—you treat us right.”
Grant: “Alright. I accept. Let’s stop this.”
And hands were shook and two war-torn men plodded back to their troops with the news and the killing stopped. That’s how I figured it went down.
As an adult, I became an admirer of General Lee and read about his life. I came to find out my conjured picture of his surrender was not far off. There is no formal surrender document from that day. The surrender was conducted through an exchange of two short letters. Grant’s was a mere five sentences long and Lee’s reply was only three short sentences. Four years of battles, over 600,00 thousand American lives lost, and all brought to a close with eight. . .short. . . sentences. To me, a profound example of the power of the written word.
Since I am a word person, I notice when unsaid words have an impact. I appreciate when the written word stops me in my tracks. But, I relish words that are sung. Words dressed in a melody have something special over other words—the ability to unite.
Coming from a musical background, I couldn’t help but notice how useful was the tool of a melody during my stint in the military. While our morning alarm at Boot Camp was a rapid clanging of some hard object by a zealous drill sergeant on caffeine, not long after our rude awakening, and no matter at what point we were in our frenzied rush to ready ourselves, when we heard the sound of Reveille, we immediately came to attention, and 36 half-dressed, bleary-eyed female recruits stood saluting. It didn’t even seem ridiculous that we saluted a gray cement wall with our company seal “D Company Devil Dogs” on it. I knew that right outside that wall was a uniformed soldier raising the Colors and everyone everywhere on that base was doing the same thing–listening to the scampering notes of a happy trumpet and saluting the rising flag. Those few moments were powerful–being connected by a melody for 30 seconds with 1200 other troops, undergoing the same fairly miserable experience.
But being united by Reveille in the mornings was only the beginning of melodies and songs in our day. Our evening hymn, ‘The Caisson Song,’ was sung lustily after holding our canteens upside-down over our heads, proving we had properly hydrated before bed. And throughout the long training day, no matter where we moved, we got there as a group, in lock step, singing like overgrown 2nd graders to the short, melodic bursts of our thick-throated drill sergeant calling cadence. This man was a marvel. When you’ve marched in step with a talented cadence caller, marching in step with anything less was terribly disappointing. Our platoon would have followed him anywhere and I’d be willing to bet that I wasn’t the only member of his platoon who considers marching with him their fondest memory. We won the Drill and Ceremony competition at the end of training, but it wasn’t because we were spectacular. It was because our drill sergeant was. To this day I can hear his enormous, full-timbred voice, perfect pitch, and subtle vocal variations he’d throw into my favorite cadence “Everywhere I go. . .there’s a drill sergeant there.” This man could have sung me right into the thick of battle.
It would be hard to pinpoint my favorite moment of Boot Camp. Oddly enough, I had many of them. But the following scene would be in the running. It was the day before graduation. We had to march to the distant parade ground and practice the required Drill and Ceremony. The nearby parade ground was saturated by rain and unusable (or so we were told). Moving a battalion of 1200 soldiers half a mile by foot in 90-degree weather was no small endeavor. But some smart person decided the trip would go better if platoons were linked and the strongest cadence callers led the way. By this time, our DS had quite a good reputation as a caller, so for our company, he was the obvious choice. As two other platoons hooked up with ours, I could hear our drill sergeant’s voice rise to the occasion, giving me shivers. He kept his head turned directly right and held high the whole time so those soldiers at the far end of the line could hear him. It was awe inspiring to hear him call even louder than he had for the past 70 days, bellowing those cadences with his whole being. It’s one thing to follow the lead of a cadence caller leading a platoon of 64. It’s an entirely different experience marching to a skilled cadence caller in a company of 200. It is a beautiful, deafening sound. Singing in that formation and swinging my arms in unison with new comrades who knew all the same songs, was nothing short of thrilling. The feeling was palpable–the unifying power of words–sung.
It doesn’t surprise me that certain hymns have been around for hundreds of years. In a real way, they have been the cadence of Christians through the ages–short, poetic, understandable bursts of eternal truths wrapped inside melodies that linger in a heart for a lifetime–routinely uniting those who sing them. Hymn singers don’t have sparse living quarters in common. We have the sinful human condition in common. We aren’t oppressed by drill sergeants making unreasonable demands. We’re oppressed by Satan, the world and our own flesh on an hourly basis. But thankfully, as the hymns I’ve sung since childhood say, we’re headed to a heavenly parade ground, prepared by a Redeemer who attended Boot Camp in our place, and at the end, laid down His life.
Sure enough. We learned on Graduation Day that there was nothing wrong with the nearby parade ground. In classic Boot Camp fashion, we had been duped once again.
(“God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It” used by permission from its translator, Rev. Robert Voelker.)