Far left: Charles Lewis, Sergeant, USMC (Air Forces)
In the summers of 2000 and 2001, the last years before the Baron’s Boy obtained his driver’s license, Dymphna spent those long, warm afternoons driving the future Baron around the county where we live, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. The Baron’s Boy, whose name is Will (though back then it was “Willie”) had decided finally on his Eagle Scout Leadership Service Project.
As most readers of this blog probably know, no boy can attain the rank of Eagle unless he creates a project, completes it, and appears before a Board of Review to discuss and defend his work. It is always a service project, one that must benefit the boy’s community — church, school, individuals, etc. The boy serves as leader of the project but he must include others in the work. He learns to lead and to co-operate.
Will had — and has — a deep love of military history, strategy and tactics. In middle school he’d written several papers within this field, including an overview of the strategic use of airplanes in the European theater in World War II. So when it came time to create his service project, what better thing to do than interview the remaining World War II veterans in our small county? Gradually, over several months, he drew up a list of questions for the vets: things he wanted to know, but also things he thought would be of interest to readers years from now, when the grandchildren of these men were grandparents themselves.
Armed with his questions and a list of veterans a school teacher had drawn up previously (she used to invite the veterans in to talk to her classes), Will made his appointments with the vets and set off onto the back roads of Buckingham County, excited to be able to talk to the men he so admired. In the meantime, he’d acquired a video camera. Being able now to capture the whole experience on tape made the project even more rewarding.
It’s going on five years now since that first day on the road. The project, “Right in the Thick of It”, is long finished, printed and bound and distributed. All the extra copies of the book were donated to Historic Buckingham, with the proceeds of their sale going toward the historical society’s other projects. Meanwhile, a number of the veterans interviewed have since died — some of them even before the project was completed. Always, there was a sense of urgency, a need to record these men and their thoughts before they were gone.
Every man and woman in this book is special. Each holds a place of admiration in Will’s heart. One soldier in particular, Dick Miles, was the grandfather of Will’s friend and a member of the church where Will played the organ; he was particularly beloved. When he died in February, 2003, Will’s final salute was to play the organ at Dick’s funeral. During the service, one of his sons got up to say that during his whole life, he never remembered his father saying an unkind word about anyone. To Will, and to all of us, it was the final word on a life that Ralph Waldo Emerson would have admired:
The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have made some difference that you have lived and lived well.
Now Sergeant Miles lies buried in the church graveyard, in property his family donated to the Episcopal Church, just as they donated the property on which the volunteer firehouse stands.
As a Memorial Day tribute, here is the transcript of Dick Miles' interview. As you will see, it was he who gave the title to the book.
Yesterday, our small county had its Memorial Day celebration and here is what it was: Hazel Miles, Dick Miles’ widow, married old “Doc” Woods. The bride and groom sat in chairs at the top of the large porch while we gathered below to witness the occasion. Hazel carried flowers gathered by the children. The Reverend Canon Bruce Weatherly, also a World War II vet (and Korean War Marine Corps chaplain) officiated at their marriage. No doubt Dick Miles was somewhere close by, beaming at the dozens of relatives and friends gathered on his lawn to pay tribute to the endurance of grace and of hope.
Rest in peace, Sergeant Miles.