Last night I started a brief instagram post with these words,
"Even the most beautiful things cannot last last forever."
It is true. But in a way, that is what makes them so beautiful. If you'll excuse the cliché, beautiful things are like flowers - we appreciate them so much more when we only get to experience their beauty for a little while.
One of these beautiful flowers was a retired English teacher named Bill Madden. He was soft-spoken and gentle. He dressed in the way you would imagine an old lover of the arts would dress, including a slightly faded, but very neat, blue cardigan. He lived and breathed poetry and could recite countless classics from Keats, the Bronte Sisters, and Emily Dickinson, to the slightly lesser known (but still wonderful) Eugene Field and Alfred Noyes.
Once, Jubilee and I spent a delightful afternoon with Mr. Madden comparing notes on our favorite poets. We had a little disagreement over the merit of Kipling's writings, but that only added to the color of our conversation. Emily Dickinson's "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church" brought on hilarious laughter at the peculiarity of her writings. It was all so impromptu and lovely that I shall never forget it.
But with all these gentle qualities, you would never have guessed Mr. Madden to be a former United States Marine, one of the men who fought with "uncommon valor" on the battlefields of the Pacific. Instead of commemorating his 19th birthday with cake and ice cream, he was storming the beaches of Iwo Jima. There were no candles for him to blow out and the fireworks in the sky were not a celebration of life, but more out of a line from Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade, "Cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them, cannon in front of them, volley'd and thunder'd. Storm'd at with shot and shell, into the jaws of death, into the mouth of Hell."
Looking over the island's landscape, he later recalled, "[It] reminded me of the witches scene in Macbeth. Clouds of sulfur fumes steamed up from nearly every crevice of the ghostly terrain."
Mr. Madden survived Iwo long enough to see the inspirational flag-raising and watch nearly all of his close friends blown to pieces before he himself was wounded and evacuated. It took nearly 50 years before he was able to write and talk about the horrors he witnessed on that nightmare of volcanic rock. "Forever impressed on my mind," he wrote, "are the sights and sounds of young boys being ripped apart by the steel fragments of mortar shells. My hand trembles whenever I write about it, even after half a century. I will never forget the unmistakable "ka-zoom" of mortar shells exploding into a clustered body of troops and then the "zing" of fragments of body, sand, and steel flying past my ears as I dived for cover. Life can never be the same once it is experienced under those conditions."
One friend, Red Griffiths, miraculously survived a fearsome bullet that ricocheted around his helmet, entered his neck, and exited his back. Another walked into a machine gun ambush and was paralyzed from the waist down. "So many more of my buddies dropped one by one with wounds: Neilson, Johnson, Lanier, Strome, Mitchell, Rebstock, and Hernandez, to name a few. I myself was buried alive my a mortar shell on the edge of my foxhole, but was dug out immediately by Al. That blast robbed me of my hearing for 24 hours... Even more fearful to contemplate after I was rescued was the smashed but unexploded grenade lying beside my head." And the stories go on.
My first meeting with Mr. Madden was unforgettable. Jubilee and I had traveled to Virginia Beach for the 5th Marine Division Reunion. It was one of the first times we had traveled alone like this, but the opportunity of being around so many of our wonderful Marines quite put away any concerns. The first afternoon of touring brought us to a local Military Aviation Museum where we all gathered outside before going in.
"Excuse me," said a soft voice. Jube and I turned around to see a lovely veteran whom we hadn't yet met. "May I please ask what two such nice young ladies are doing in a group of us old people?" We laughed and told him how we wouldn't miss a gathering like this for anything! "I was on Iwo," he said, "And the guy over there saved my life... A mortar shell hit right by me blasting my eardrums and burying me alive. Al came and dug me out, and, if it weren't for him, I would be dead. You know," he continued, hardly pausing to take a breath, "My wife passed away three months ago. And you girls remind me so much of her. We were married for 69 years. She was the love of my life." He pulled out a photo of a gorgeous brunette and showed it to us. In an instant, our laughter nearly turned to tears as we realized how fresh the loss was for this gentle man.
We continued to chat for the rest of the day, beginning to put together the pieces of a life which could be considered that of a truly all American boy. In love with his high school sweetheart (though unsure that the love was reciprocated), he signed up as a United States Marine to follow in the steps of his older brother. Completing bootcamp, he was shipped off to the Pacific for combat, hardly after his 18th birthday, hoping all the while that he would survive to return and marry the girl he'd been in love with for so long.
Now, let me just pause and take a minute to tell you the story of Bill (Mr. Madden) and Phyllis (his wife). Theirs is the ultimate storybook romance if there ever was one. It started with the "puppy love" (as he called it) of a young high school boy, but quickly grew into a mature love and desire to marry the girl of his dreams. To him, Phyllis was as kind as she was beautiful, talented as she was popular, with a genuine heart that only thought of others. And Bill knew she was the only one he could ever love. But there was a problem, Phyllis was dating a guy named "Slats."
Slats would have been nice enough, except for the fact that Slats liked Phyllis and Bill liked Phyllis too. "Slats was a nice guy." Mr. Madden told me. "I liked him a lot, but this was war over the woman we both wanted to marry. I would have done almost anything to get her to marry me instead of him. That's how love works, I guess." And how could a poor young Marine compare to the guy who "had a good job, good clothes, and a nice car." Things looked hopeless for Bill until Slats joined the Navy, and Bill found his opportunity to cut in. This didn't last long, however, as he too was soon shipped off to San Diego for training. Phyllis continued to stay in touch with both the Sailor and the Marine, but it couldn't continue this way.
On invitation of her boyfriend, Slats, Phyllis, and a friend named Fern went to stay with an aunt in Los Angeles. Slats was concerned that he was being pushed out of the picture, and hoped to gain some ground by making frequent visits. Phyllis now found herself in a conundrum. Even though she had been dating Slats, she was beginning to take a real liking to this shy, young Marine. Well, the climax of this little love triangle finally arrived. In Mr. Madden's words here is what happened:
"She told me to come there on a day that Slats did not have time off, but 'the best laid plans of mice and Marines gang aft agley.' Slats got someone to take his duty place on the day I was to take Phyllis out. I had hitch hiked to LA and was going to take a cab wherever the girls wanted to go, but we ended up, all four of us, in Slats' aunt's car and headed for the Hollywood Palladium where Harry James was playing and Helen Forrest was singing. I was not too happy with the arrangement, and neither was Slats, much less Phyllis. We got to the Palladium, had some drinks, and listened to that heavenly music of James and Forrest. I quickly asked Phyllis to dance before Slats had a chance to. I was still a teenager and didn't dance very well, but I would have done anything to get her alone for a while so we could talk. Well, we danced, talked, and when the song was over, we stayed till the next one and the next one before we got back to the table with Fern and Slats. He was not happy a bit. I got one more dance during the playing and singing of "Stardust," which became our song. She decided that night that she would choose me to marry over Slats."
They were married for 69 years.
I already told you a bit about his experiences on Iwo. After meeting him at the reunion, Jubilee and I chatted with him over email, exchanging stories nearly every week. It was frequent for him to talk about Iwo in those emails- the buddies he lost and the nightmarish events that were burned into his memory. But more often he talked about what he wanted future generations to know. He didn't want the sacrifice of those men forgotten, as so many have already done. I know at times he wondered if the price we paid on Iwo was worth it. But I think it was. The freedom we have in America today is an example of that.
As we continued to talk, he became less the formal English teacher, and more the personal friend. Though this did come with one difficulty. "Call me Bill instead of Mr. Madden," he said. "I give you permission, although I admire you for the respect." I protested. It's not really my habit to call people I respect and who are a great deal older than me by their Christian names. It just doesn't seem right. However Mr. Madden eventually won over. "And you can just make it Bill, not Mr. Bill... We're just Liberty and Bill now." Well that was the end of that.
We talked about family and life. He told me Marines never build their houses at the bottom of a hill, and when our house flooded last spring, I understood why. He gave me valuable advice for our futures: Be careful in choosing a boyfriend - "Don't be in too much of a hurry. Many people rush into marriage and then decide to quit within five years. That's not the way to go. Don't be in a hurry. I know you will use good judgment... I sure hope you girls someday have a man who will love you as much as I loved Phyllis, and still do."
Lastly, he also taught me to be an ardent Chicago Cubs fan... but my wait to see them win wasn't nearly as long as his. In fact, Mr. Madden had been waiting 70 years to see the Cubs play the Series. In late 1945, while he was recuperating in the Navy Hospital in Chicago from wounds he received on Iwo, word got around that in gratitude for their service, the Chicago Cubs were offering free tickets to any of the patients in that hospital. The tickets were given to the Navy officials, who in turn made the happy announcement with one stipulation: That they would be required to "scrub down the deck" and do various other hospital cleaning. Well, gentle though Mr. Madden was, he was not about to be pushed around by some stuffy Naval officer, so he stiffly refused. "They're sure to play the Series another year, so I'll go then." 70 years later as he told this to Jube and me, it was still evident that his dignity had been offended. We had to laugh. But as we all know, the Cubs didn't play the Series the next year, nor the next, nor for many years after that. A staunch Cubs fan, Mr. Madden held out hope.
This past October, I heard that after all these years he was finally going to be able to see the Cubs play in the World Series. I know he was so excited about it. As I cheered for the Cubs' win, I was so thrilled knowing that his wish had finally come true. Little did I know that night that he had passed away just a few days too early, on November 1st. He never got to see the Cubs win their game.
Even though I knew his health was poor, and we discussed it frequently with each other -the merits and otherwise of possible medications and procedures - it still was a shock to hear. Despite the vivid and harsh impact Iwo Jima had left on him, he still continued to look at life as beautiful, grateful for the many years he had been given. But I know he was happy to go. The last few months of his life he continually told me how much he missed his wife, Phyllis. "You don't know what it's like to live with someone you love for 69 years, and then not have them with you." Still, I'm selfish enough to want him here a little longer. Just one more chat, one more conversation. I only got to know him in the latter part of his life as the years had faded him and ill-health and pain made basic things very difficult, even dreary for him. But still he had shared so much kindness to Jube and me, that it only makes his passing so much the harder. He was truly one of the most beautiful souls I have ever met. Mr. Madden's life story seems to be one of the truest examples of the Greatest Generation. And I know, I for one will certainly miss him.