It is the last Christmas of my brother’s youth, and I see his path ahead in the images of the past.
We buried my grandfather in Arlington together on a bright and beautiful summer day. The full honor guard assigned for his 30 years in the Army was crisp and polished, correct in every way, perfectly timed, giving proper gravity to the event of the passing of a man they never met or knew.
I found the box of my grandfather’s photos in an attic closet, buried under old books, a rust-tinged Erector set, and a service record the color of cardboard and thick as two phonebooks. The first faded picture was from Christmas in San Juan, 1927. He was only 4 years old, held in the arms of an unknown cousin, but his broad nose and charming grin were recognizable even in sepia. Still called “Juan” back then, he would later change his name to the Americanized John when he joined the Army. He wanted to be known as an American first, even more than a Puerto Rican.
Soon there was a growing pile of pictures of newer Christmases, but fewer and fewer from home. These were images from distant lands, small trees propped up with small ornaments in his drab quarters in Korea, Caribbean beach showed more heartfelt affection than I ever recalled seeing them demonstrate in public. In another, she posed against one generous gift, a gray Studebaker parked on the dusty road of a military base, her arms outspread with pride.
The Bronze Star came next, then more pictures, more events, more medals, fewer smiles and craggy-faced generals inspecting troops. Not enough time for pictures of the everyday - they had a son now, another on the way, and too much work to be done.
My brother’s path to the Army was set at a young age. He wanted to do this, he assured us, for a variety of reasons - an athlete, he had the steadiest hands of any of his friends, a crack shot, always measured and even in temperament. So, in his senior year, when the time for ROTC assignments came, it was no surprise that his first choice was infantry. He follows in the family footsteps, into a world more dangerous and unsettled than the one my grandfather faced two generations ago, sure of himself and unafraid.
Looking back at the faded images of young soldiers in uniform, I see the same moxie in them, the courage and commitment of these bighearted youngsters who fought in terrible places and in unending proxy wars. But that’s an illusion - they faced the same fears men and women in uniform face today, the same concerns about family and home, the same uncertainty in the leadership in Washington.
Soon, my brother will have a new family, a new mission and a new commander-in-chief whose orders he must follow. And even if he is undaunted by these challenges, my family will not be shy about our prayers for him.
We are more confident in the well-being of Obama presidency already resembles the Clinton years to an uncanny degree, and we fully expect my brother’s Christmases to be spent in distant lands, far from hearth and home.
Yet perhaps this is as it should be. The commitment of service would mean nothing if it did not demand sacrifice, and as sad as it will be for all of us, we find solace in knowing that he will be doing what he desires, as his grandfather before him - guarding the country he loves, protecting it from those who wish it harm, and endeavoring to win back a dangerous world for peace and freedom.
As for us, we find truth in the counsel of the past, in image and in word. In December 1941, when my grandfather was 18, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was in Washington on Christmas Eve, at the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. The words he shared are as true today as it was then, urging his American cousins on national radio to “cast aside for this night at least the cares and dangers which beset us, and make for the children an evening of happiness in a world of storm.”
“Let the children have their night of fun and laughter, let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures,” he said, “Before we turn again to the stern tasks and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that by our sacrifice and daring these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.”
Ben Domenech is the editor of The City.