The Value of One Life

How do we measure that?

He was born on this day in 1922, at the very apex of the British Empire, when Great Britain had direct rule over 1 of every 4 people on the earth.

His birth was not noted, even in his hometown.

He was a skinny, skrawny runt of a boy, nicknamed “Red” by friends because of his ruddy complexion and a reddish tint to his hair. He was picked on and bullied until his older brother, a Golden Gloves boxer, taught him how to defend himself.

His mother, whose own parents shared the burst of pride felt in their citizenship by giving her the middle name “America,” believed in education, especially reading, and all of his 7 siblings were bright.

During the Great Depression years, his father had what was considered a good job, working for a cigarette manufacturer, but few families escaped the reach of such despair and need. So he sold apples, picked from the tree in his back yard, for a nickle each.

Some evenings, his mother would send him into the alley behind their home to invite in the homeless, wandering men he found there, to share a bowl of soup and a piece of homemade bread. Men dressed in suits and ties, with the hint of desperation in their eyes and the scent of hopelessness about them…

He could recall their images 80 years later.

He was athletic and funny, prone to risk-taking and adventure. He was a good student at the all-male high school that would also eventually graduate Cassius Clay.

And when the attack on Pearl Harbor came, he and his two best friends went, as did millions of others, to enlist.

He wanted to be a pilot. His friends, one of whom became a marine, serving in the Pacific, and one who joined the infantry and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, thought he was too skinny to fight, but he was accepted into the United States Air Force.

He scrubbed out of pilot’s school for his risky flying but had the math skills to become a skilled navigator and so earned his wings and shipped off to England.

On his sixth mission, May 29, 1944, he was shot down over Leipzig, Germany. Two of his crew-mates died inside the plane, and he always said he was floating toward power lines when a gust of wind lifted him safely over certain death. He knew he had been saved.

He was interred at Stalag Luft III near the Polish border, a prison camp best known from the film, The Great Escape.

He was an officer and told me the Germans treated him “pretty well,” though everyone, including the guards, was starving. He kept a diary, filled with thoughts about every sort of food, that offers a glimpse of the deprivation he endured.

As the Russians advanced, all the prisoners were rounded up and forced to march down into the heart of Germany. It was bitterly cold, in the full embrace of winter, and the lines of men were so stretched out that he and two buddies just walked away one day, seeking refuge in a barn in the German countryside. They spent the night, were fed by the owners, offered beer — the first beer he had ever tasted — and he was asked by the mayor of the town to sign a note telling the Americans who would eventually come that he was not a Nazi.

After almost a year, April 29, 1945, he was liberated, by General Patton himself. He was close enough to him to see his twin pearl-handled guns. Shipped home, he found he had contracted TB, and was sent to a hospital in San Antonio for treatment.

He married, had two children, and earned his B.A. on the GI Bill, supported by his wife, an RN — but it was a struggle. Money was always scarce. The young couple had a third child. He took jobs as a salesman, as an installer of furnaces, whatever he could find to keep his family clothed and fed.

He was offered a scholarship to Harvard Business School which was then, and probably now, a ticket to the good life of affluence and influence. But he felt a deeper calling, and entered the Seminary to get a degree in Theology. Eventually that call would take him, his wife, and their three young children thousands of miles away to a country they’d never heard of: Malaya.

They served 8 years. It was illegal then, as now, to speak of Christianity to a Muslim, but when a young ethnic Malay man from the east coast of the country came to him and asked to be baptized, he did so without second thought. He could have been arrested and jailed. As it was, they were not allowed back to what had become Malaysia once their visas expired and so, in his 40’s, he began a new phase of his life

He attended Columbia University, received a Ph.D in Psychology, and became a clinical psychologist and Chairman of the Psychology Department at William Carey College in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Not an ordinary life, but not an extraordinary one either, at least based on the way the world judges most of us.

Except that this man is my father, and without him, and my mother, I would not be where I am today. I owe them my life.

How does one value that?

He is flawed, as are we all.

He has suffered, and he has caused suffering, as do we all.

He did not always do his best. He did not always hear the still, small voice that led him to those actions and decisions of which he is most proud now, but he’s never given up trying.

Today, he turns 91.

He won’t see 92. He is in the final stages of pancreatic cancer.

And I just want him to know how much I love him, have always loved him, and thank him for teaching me, through both the good and the bad, how to be a husband, father, and man.

His is just one life, but to me, it is invaluable.

Because I know him as the world does not, and I will miss him every day of my life once he’s gone.