It was France, September 1916. The clouds were heavy over Flanders. The Northumberland Fusiliers had just been given the order to ``go over the top.'' My father was among the first to emerge from the British trenches with rifle bayoneted for the charge. The Fusiliers headed out ``at the double'' across some hundred yards of mud separating the Allies from the enemy.Skip to next paragraph
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All at once my dad found himself strangely alone in that ``no man's land,'' jogging through smoke with the sound of machine-gun fire in his ears. Then without warning, he had reached his objective and was suddenly face to face with the enemy.
``I could never have anticipated what happened next,'' he told me. ``I was looking directly down into the German trench. A blond teenager sat there alone waiting for me. His helmet was in the mud, his hands folded in his lap. Bright blue eyes looked up at me expressionless as I bore down on him. In all that tumult, I remember only the two of us face to face.
``I stopped still. Slowly, I lowered my rifle. Reaching down now, I placed my hand gently on his uniformed shoulder. There were tears in his eyes. No word was spoken. Without hesitation then, I turned and moved past him into the rest of my life....''
My father survived that charge without a scratch, but the memory of the German youth never left his thought.
Some 25 years later in the middle of World War II, he was sitting on a white bench on the front lawn of our home in the Wye Valley. We lived on the side of a steep hill about 500 yards up from the River Wye, whose course marks one of the borders between England and Wales. There had just been an air raid on Bristol only 20 miles away, and German fighter aircraft had been strafing the English countryside on their escape route back to Germany.
Around the bend of the river half a mile upstream and unbelievably low over the water, a fighter plane suddenly roared into sight. As it banked the bend, a black swastika glared menacingly from its tail fin. It was a Focke-Wulf flying so low in the valley that, as it straightened up, my father on that white bench would have appeared very clearly in the pilot's gun sights.
Within seconds, it was all over. The German pilot flew right at him. Dad sat motionless, his eyes closed. He had time to imagine the pilot's finger on the trigger. And then history took a leap. Across his thought flashed the face of the youth in the mud of Flanders - with the memory of that moment of mercy 25 years before. Almost at once, my father felt himself bathed in silence. The Focke-Wulf had banked sharply over the lawn and had roared out of sight.
A third episode. In the early 1970s, shortly after I had emigrated to Canada, I was sitting quietly in my office in Toronto with my Bible open on my desk when a black Mercedes-Benz drew up outside. There was a knock on the door. My visitor was invited in. After only a few minutes of conversation, it came to light that this white-haired gentleman sitting before me was once the chief engineer who had led the design staff in the manufacture of German fighter aircraft - including that Focke-Wulf that had swept over my father's head three decades earlier.
Now the pieces in this jigsaw puzzle began to fit. It was uncanny. I began to see how that irreversible sequence had been put into motion with my father's act of mercy on that Flanders field. Actually, a different perception of history was being formed for me. Not history as a mirror held up to human reality in which events determine thought. Quite the contrary. Here was history as the reflection of a moral force - a state of mind in which thought was determining events.
That state of mind was the contemplation of mercy itself. I am convinced that it was the moral force at work in the thinking of that Focke-Wulf pilot: that time, my dad was at the receiving end of mercy. And, in turn, I remember keenly that warm caring that colored my own thought as I sat opposite the German aircraft designer some 30 years later.
Mercy always translates crisis into opportunity. Mercy moves noiselessly above animosity and reprisal. I can think of no greater antithesis to irony than what those three episodes offer when viewed together as a construct of history. Mercy as the force that shaped them is an adept conjuror with time.
For when we turn from the literalism of human tragedy and look carefully enough, we come to see how mercy acts as it moves from crisis to crisis, from decade to decade. At the last moment, it makes singular beauty out of what threatens to be the irreversible collision of circumstance and lives. If we only knew it, history is in the hands of mercy.
I love the implication flowing out of a familiar 19th-century Christian hymn. It begins ``There's a wideness in God's mercy,/ Like the wideness of the sea;/ There's a kindness in His justice,/ Which is more than liberty....''
Such ``wideness'' and ``kindness'' somehow create in my thought a different dimension to link mercy with justice. That dimension is respect. It is respect for the dignity of the vulnerable or the oppressed that generates a history of humanity - humanity as a lifestyle, humanity as an art. In a world of excessive brutality, that history may be more alive in us than we have ever guessed.
And when mercy becomes a reality, even a child can respect the lifting faces of the spared.