Why I Celebrate Veterans Day
I am going to apologize in advance for a story instead of a how to do. I wrote this a couple of years ago and thought for some reason I wanted to share this.
Down take and uptake is coming, I promise.
Jonah and His Friends
By Roy Haney
Being that it was my first church it was special. It wasn’t much as churches go, but it was in the country where I wanted to be. The church was painted white and sat under some 100-year-old oak trees.
I was not from this area, but I was ready to go guide my flock. It was in the fall. My first Sunday actually landed on November 11, “Veterans Day”. I had contemplated about talking about Veterans, but since I wasn’t one I decided to stay safe.
The church itself was painted white and had been built by the parishioners in the 1890s. The outside walls were clapboard siding cut from poplar trees from the site. The double doors – that many churches had at that time – opened wide for the congregations. The pews sat about 125 people if they were all filled. I don’t honestly think I had ever spoke to 125 people at one time, but I was looking forward to helping, being a service, following the Lord. I had faith, shaking knees and all. So, with the faith of the young and hope of the faithful, I was ready.
As people filed in I couldn’t help thinking that I was in a Norman Rockwell picture. The congregation tended to be elderly, but there were babies and small children acting as God meant kids to be. I took a seat in what is called the Deacon pews as most of the people came in. I watched as different people took seats that they had occupied most of their lives. There were embroidered pillows that were not to be moved because they held a place that had been held for many, many years. I will have to say that I was disappointed when only 35 parishioners sat down. I have been warned that it would take time, but youth doesn’t always want to obey that.
I walked up to the altar and stood. I needed to remind myself to breathe. I sat my grandfather’s bible down and was not surprised to have it open up where I planned to preach from. What I was surprised by was that when I wrapped my fingers around the edges of the altar my fingers found well-worn groves from many people that had been where I was today. This for some reason this calmed me and as I looked down at my grandfathers Bible and started to speak when the rear door opened. It seemed that the whole church turned at once to see a grizzled man walk in. He walked with authority and walked to a space that had been left open. There were two places there and one of them had an embroidered pillow. He sat down beside the pillow with a grizzled hand reached down and gently rubbed it.
This man did not scare me, but it seemed that the air had completely change in the church. It was obvious that the congregation revered this man. I did not have to be introduced to him, I had been told of Mr. Branson, I had also been told that he came to church maybe three times a year, but November 11 was one of them. He did not smile, he did not talk, but he walked down the aisle turned took his seat. He then slowly turned to me with blue eyes that seem to be a roadmap to somewhere I had never been.
I looked down at the Bible that I had brought today. This Bible was older than I was by a good margin, and in fact it had traveled more. This was my grandfather’s Bible. The pages were worn. The cover had tears which had been carefully mended.
My grandfather was a preacher who went to war, but didn’t come home. When I was ordained, my mother gave me her father’s Bible. I decided that to start my life as a new ordained preacher there would not be a better way to start that to preach from the Word that my grandfather had read so many times. I had to smile, how many times had the people before me came probably was as nervous as I am but still stood here with their fingers wrapped and pouring out the word from God.
Oh, I was smiling, this was my flock, and they were smiling back at me.
I decided that I would preach about Jonah. It was easy to turn to the passage that I had decided to preach from because my grandfather’s bible automatically opened there. I preached and I gave it my all. I spoke about Jonah’s trials; I spoke about Jonah’s faith leading him on. I spoke about that whale; I spoke about the beach he was spit upon. When I was done, I realized that I had preached my first sermon to my new congregation, and I had not even got sick doing it. I was happy; the congregation was happy. The music we added seem to make the world a little better. I was proud to walk down the aisle to the rear door to be able to shake the hands of each and every person.
Everybody got up and made their way to the back as normal except for Mr. Branson. Some of the deacons in the church stood back talking among their selves trying to decide what to do. Mr. Branson slowly got up, his age showed as he slowly walks toward me. He stopped just in front of me and did not hold his hand out, but stood there looking me in the eyes. One thing I have been taught by my father, who was taught by his father, is always look a man face-to-face, but this is one time I honestly wanted to run. He slowly held his hand out. To my relief, I shook it without shaking too much.
“Son, I want you to come to my house today. 3 o’clock will be fine”. Then, without saying anything more he turned and went out the door.
The deacons had been standing close by and were obviously nervous, and I honestly think they would not have been surprised if Mr. Branson had just eaten me and walked away. I looked at them, and they looked at me and said, “You should be fine.” I honestly did not feel very good with the words “should be”.
Mr. Branson was a man that helped the community. Most never saw him and never knew what he did unless someone whispered. When a man got hurt in the factory, there would be baskets of vegetables or maybe even a chicken tied to his front porch. There was always something being done, but it was never spoken about. Most never even saw him doing what he did.
From my conversation with the deacons, I learned that his wife had passed away 10 years before. I also learned that a long time ago Mr. Branson had been a very harsh person. He had gone to war, came home, and most figured that he would go away. But a young girl, who had known him all his life, stood by him and saved him from the darkness. For the last 10 years very, few people ever talked to him. It wasn’t that he was mad. It just seemed like he was not there. His body was, his actions were, the good that he would do in the community was very evident but the happiness that he had gained after the darkness that he had walked through was now gone.
The deacons did not know what to do, in the last 10 years he had never invited a preacher or virtually anyone else to his home. Now on my first day as a new preacher he had not invited, but commanded me to come. The deacons met and decided that it would be better if I went alone. That did not make me feel good.
Since it was my first day, I was invited to dinner by one of the deacons, but for some reason I decided that my time would be better spent on my knees listening. I have been told that my grandfather wore out the knees of his overalls without anyone ever seen him kneel. I waited until everybody had left, and I prayed. I did not know what I was praying for. This may sound odd but at times I was praying for guidance, often I was praying for understanding, and a couple of times I was praying to live throughout the day.
I left the church with a map showing how to get to Mr. Branson’s farm. I found that the map was good, but my car was not. The drive up to the house from the road was not passable…unless you had a four-wheel drive truck.
I’m young. I took off hiking with my grandfather’s Bible under my arm. It was a beautiful farm – if you would call it that. The trees came right to the road, at times it was like going through a tunnel. I hiked up over a small ridge setting between two large hills and stopped. They’re sitting up against the two hills was a small white farmhouse. It surprised me because the house was immaculate. I figured that Mr. Branson probably lived in a cave with a campfire and a deer carcass on a spit over it. I was surprised to see that the yard was ringed with a board fence freshly painted, flowers planted at the base and well-manicured. It did not fit the Mr. Branson I have been told about.
Mr. Branson was sitting on the porch in a rocker, at his feet was the largest, ugliest, meanest looking dog that I had ever seen. The dog never barked just raised his massive head to see if lunch was being served. I had never been this nervous. Mr. Branson just sat in his chair slowly rocking back and forth. In his lap was what looked like some type of whip that was made of knotted strings. He slowly looked up at me and said, “Son, have a seat” and then looked back at his lap and continue to rock.
“Mr. Branson, I want to thank you for having me to your home and I would like to tell you this being my first day how much it means to me”.
He only looked down at that strange whip of knots and continued to rock.
Then with a deliberate voice he spoke. “Son I wanted to talk to you about what you preached about today”. I looked up at him perplexed, the story of Jonah and the whale was a very safe and well-known topic. As I looked at him he seemed to be looking through me at someone else and it shook me to my core.
“Son it’s time you heard the story of my friend Jonah”.
I looked at him not comprehending. “What do you mean your friend Jonah?”
He began to explain.
When you have been swallowed by a whale everyone that has followed suit is also your friend. You have to understand that many years ago, I stood with 145 young men just like me with all the spunk, hope, fear and determination that poor boys on the farm could have. We were called to fight the Hun. All of us were ready and determined to get into the fight. We trained. We learned about weapons we had never heard of. We figured that the war would be over in a week after we got there. That is when Jonah became my friend. In training we learned about explosives, that is where this first shoelace came from.
He fingered the odd knots and continued his story. Randy, a boy from Wisconsin who played baseball in the minor leagues, could throw a grenade the farthest. We were told to throw them high and let them come down, but he threw his hard like a pitcher straight at the old dummy tank we practiced hitting. He was accurate but he threw it so hard that when it hit the side of the tank that grenade bounced back all the way where he was. What we found of him was basically this shoelace. It had one knot tied into the end. I don’t know why but I put that bloodied and torn shoelace in my pocket. Before we were ready to ship out, I had tied four more knots into that shoelace: two were from diseases we didn’t even know the name of and two were from something they called ‘training accidents’.
By then my life had changed. I wasn’t worried about killing the Hun, I only wanted to get back home with my friends.
We were shipped out of a port in New Jersey. I had never been to a town that had more than 300 people. This seems like a new world, but when they told us to march into a hole on the side of the ship that looked more like a wreck. It shook all of us to the bone. That ship had pumps pumping out water at four different places that we could see. The rust was evident everywhere, but we were told to go into the belly of that beast. I think half of us threw up before we got to what they called our bunks. The smell inside of what they call the hole, what we referred to as the prison, and what became the belly smelled worse than anything you could imagine.
Each day that we were there got even worse from so many people throwing up. It wasn’t dark, but it was not light. Our bunks were canvass hammocks stacked from the floor to the ceiling so that when you were in the tallest one if you did not jump out you basically fell through three other people. When you laid in your bunk you were within 18 inches of the next person row after row. At first, we tried to have spaces where we could play cards or dice or something anything to take our minds off having been swallowed. There just wasn’t enough room for this many people. What you ended up doing is you laid in your hammock all day, and all night. We were brought up in shifts to do calisthenics and breathe air that had not been breathed 10 times before. This was how it was day after day in the belly of the beast. By the fifth day, each and every man would have swum to Europe if it meant that they would not have to return to our Hell on Earth. That is when I met your grandfather, Jonah. We were almost delirious when a slow steady voice started to read. Your grandfather chose Jonah 1-4 in that Bible that you used this morning. He read with a slow deliverance and soon people started to settle down. Each night he read the same passages and there weren’t complaints. That Johan in the Bible seemed more of our comrade than just a figure.
When you read of Jonah, you left out part of what he went through. You see in the days that he was there in the belly of that beast he also lived. That means what he ate was what had been provided him either good nor bad. What he drank had the stench of the beast. Each sound he heard day and night were like none he had ever heard of before. He started his journey with the knowledge and certainty of the sunlight, but during his journey there were times – I promise you – that he wondered would he ever see the light again. That was the way it was for all of us. We knew that our life was at the mercy of an old ship not being worth the torpedo from a U-boat. We knew that our life was at the mercy of old pumps pumping day and night to keep the water from claiming us.
The sweat made each day caused dampness to drip from the ceiling. During the crossing, I added two more knots to my string.
They chose me to be a scout, I guess that it was because I came from the woods and could get around quietly. This also meant that I had to lead, then live with any mistake I made.
We landed on the coast of what we were told was Ireland. We had honestly thought we had died and gone to heaven. The people in the small villages where we were split up to exercise and get our strength back welcomed us with food. Since they had already faced bombs, sometimes it was all the food they had. They made sure that we knew that they love us being there.
During that time, I was promoted to squad leader. Now if people died, it was a result of a decision I made. We left Ireland and went across the coast and landed at Normandy. For months, we fought each day until we reached a country called Czechoslovakia. By that time, I had added four more boot laces to my collection to hold the knots.
So today you preached of Jonah, your Bible is stained where that verse lies. Those stains came during that time in the belly of the beast. We did not know your grandfather very well, but as things got their darkest we begin to hear your grandfather’s voice. His opening up his Bible and reading of Jonah’s time in the beast made it possible to survive.
What you do not know is I have held that Bible myself.
When I found your grandfather after the Battle of the Bulge he was holding that Bible in his hands. He had fought and died in a horrible winter battle dying in the snow alone. His last act on earth was to take that Bible and hold it to his chest.
The only thing that I could do was to take it and wrap it in an old curtain that had been shredded by bullets and carry it until I could ship it back to your family. As you know, your grandfather was also named Jonah. I was honored to have lived with him in the belly of the beast. You see your grandfather did not stop reading to us until God delivered us from the beast. That passage was uttered by each and every one of us as we departed the belly not knowing where we were going but knowing where we had been. We knew that we had been delivered from that beast.
When I returned to where your grandfather died, I was promoted and given all that was left of our squad – only seven souls. We fought side-by-side to the end of the war. Some were wounded but not another died, and I carried these five bootlaces with 143 knots tied in them. The last shot I took in the war was to kill. With that shot, a voice came from the German lines that the war was now over. Our captain received word that it was indeed true, I do not know if my last shot killed. For some reason, when I glanced down I saw the brass of that last round glaring back at me. I picked it up and with my knife, I worked it until I could insert the ends of the five laces into it making it a handle that I used to carry the death of my friends.
I noticed for the first time how old this man seemed to be for the first time. I noticed that even the dog seemed to mourn. I did not know what to do, so I just sat there watching him slowly counting out the knots. When he got to a particular spot he stopped and looked at me, “This is the knot that I tied when I lost your grandfather.”
Next year when Veterans Day is here, and you speak about the belly of the beast understand that there are thousands of Jonah’s just like your grandfather and many others that were swallowed by the beast. They did not fight the command when they were told to enter. I know that the Lord watched out after us, and I saw the people that were saved. But what I ask of you is to take this day not honor me with just a handshake because I am living. Honor the ones that served, honor the people that walked into the belly of the beast without being swallowed as Jonah was, but walked to make this world safer.
It has been 10 years since that fateful day. The only sermon that I have ever given on Veterans Day is Jonah and the whale. Mr. Branson is no longer here, but there are kids running up and down his porch
After this first meeting, I went to his house almost every week. In this time, I learned things about my grandfather I never knew. I learned that in the darkest time when he opened his Bible and read many scoffed at first, but then many gravitated to where he was especially during their time in the beast. I grew more appreciative of where his Bible would naturally turn, and it seemed odd that when I used his Bible on those special times I could see Mr. Branson’s lips uttering the verses as I read. I could also see a softening. When he came home the first time, I learned that he was so wild everyone was afraid of him, but a young girl with a strong will calmed him down. I wish I could have met her, but when I went to his house I would see her memories in the flower garden, in the picket fence, and in the neatness of the small home.
I brought my new wife to meet Mr. Branson and found – much to my dismay- that the old dog, Sarge, thought that my new wife was special. It could have been that in my wife’s pocket magically contained a biscuit. As Mr. Branson would rock, I would see Sarge walk up and lay his massive head in, my wife, Mandy’s lap. That dog would bark happily when we came to visit and Mandy honestly looked forward to seeing who she described as her partner in crime.
There came the time that all of us will see. One-night Mr. Branson slipped away. Mandy and I happened to come the next day to hear a sorrowful moan that we had never heard before. Sarge sat as if a sentinel beside Mr. Branson’s chair, Mr. Branson was asleep with that nap forevermore.
To this day the hardest thing I ever did was to say goodbye to a man that was like a father, a grandfather, and a friend to me. A man who taught me the value of what a true friend as the 143 he left was. During the funeral, I was honored to meet three men who came home with Mr. Branson. Each filled in stories of my grandfather, my grandfather’s Bible, and Mr. Branson. Mr. Branson left a will that gave us the little cottage, and in that will he asked that there soon be children laughing.
Sarge lasted 10 days after we said goodbye to Mr. Branson. On a dark night, Mr. Branson’s grave was – as they say – vandalized. At the foot of his grave, a new grave was dug. Sarge was allowed to lay guard forevermore.
So, on Veterans Day I honestly do not care to shake your hand, but I am proud to shake it. As I shake your hand, I allow you to understand that if all of us are not willing to be swallowed by the beast if called upon then we will not survive. I served, but was not in harm’s way and never was swallowed by the beast. But when I’m shaking your hand, I am honoring those in service both men and women that were in harm’s way. Yes, we have a Memorial Day, and that day is to memorialize all that did not come home. Veterans Day is the celebration of the fact that we still have both young men and women that if called will go into the beast for you. There is no one who has served whether in peacetime or war that has not sat in the darkness wondering what was going to happen next. So, you see, when I talk of Jonah, I can relate to not knowing, not understanding, but growing in faith that the Lord is going to show me the way.
This story is written for those that did and did not come home. My father was not Mr. Branson, but when he landed at Normandy he walked to Czechoslovakia on the frontline. During that war, he was separated from his outfit during the Battle of the Bulge. When he got back to his outfit after the Battle, he was promoted and put in charge of the seven that were left. He never complained, he never moaned openly. But as a veteran and as I matured, I did see the loss that he had borne. When my father, who is now gone, came home, he also brought the hundreds of men who did not come home with him. When you see a veteran today, who has been in harm’s way, shake his hand especially on Veterans Day, but understand you’re not shaking one hand you’re honoring 1000s more.
What greater message could we teach our children than to Follow the lord where ever he calls, and what better example do we have than the Veterans, Police, Firemen, and First Responders that have entered the belly of the beast not knowing what will come. But going when asked.