Interesting day: Yesterday was the 47th anniversary of marriage to my best friend. (Steve: “How did this happen?!” — Bette: “One day at a time”). However, Bette was not feeling well, so we postponed the “celebration” to June 6th (quiet dinner in a corner booth at one of our favorite restaurants). This series of days in early June is bittersweet in many ways — my father’s only trip to Europe was via Omaha Beach, and D-Day has always been a solemn date to me (and many others, of course). My parents’ wedding occurred on June 8, the year following the end of WW2. Had he lived another 15 months, this would have been their 70th anniversary. Verily, nothing in this fallen world is truly “permanent.” I am content to be “in the moment.”
Today, I’m thinking of my father on what would have been his 93rd birthday. It is the first of his birthday anniversaries since he passed earlier this year — and the first time we can’t celebrate with him. The Blessed Hope of the resurrection in Christ tempers our loss, as we anticipate the more sublime celebration after awhile. In the meantime, I am posting some comments by my brother John, which he read at Dad’s funeral on March 28, 2015. Well said, John!
MORE IS CAUGHT THAN TAUGHT
My Dad taught us many things. He taught me how to ride a bike and how to drive a car. When I was in Cub Scouts, he tried to teach me how to climb a tree, but that didn’t work. When I was in 7th grade, he tried to teach me the rules of football, but that didn’t stick. But there were many things we learned from him just by being around him and by observing, because “more is caught than taught”.
When I was cleaning out Mom and Dad’s house a few months ago, I came across Dad’s office– that’s not the room with the computer and file cabinet, etc. It was the dining room table. That was his “office”. That’s where he did his “book work”–church finances, home finances, correspondence, etc. And in these last few years, when it became more difficult for him to get around, he “nested”, gathering the things around him that he needed. What I found among these “office” things was 4 books. For some reason, I laid them out and took a picture of them and later came understand that each one represented something about Dad. And that’s what I want to share with you.
The first book was a recent gift to him from Steve called, “Lost Indianapolis”. There wasn’t anything about Indianapolis that was lost to Dad. He knew everything about the city, having lived here for all of his 92 years (except for his years in the service). He could tell you where anything was or where it used to be i.e., “oh that’s on Capitol Ave….” or …”that’s where the RCA plant used to be” or whatever. And he knew the state of Indiana, too. You could ask him anything about any town or county and he could get you there…”take State Road # whatever and go up through such & such town”. And if for some reason he was stumped, he would get his map and a magnifying glass and find it for you and then report back to you when he talked to you the next time.
And he was mentally sharp to the end. He knew who some distant relative was that I had never heard of, and without missing a beat could tell me her name and the relationship to the family.
And Dad was the first GOOGLE. The only difference was that it was all in his pocket. He wrote down everything that was important to him. And he could give all kinds of information from the notes in his pocket…like, when Lesley was born, or what Liam’s middle name is. And that was one of the important things I learned, ASK DAD.
The second book was a book about Song Leading. It had things in it like, “what to do with a rogue singer” etc. I found it amusing and thought he would enjoy it. Dad had a really nice voice. At the Care Center, when I would play the piano for him, he would sing along. And one of the residents commented, “Your Dad sure has a nice voice. He must have been in the choir.” If he was in the right mood, you might get him to sing the Wheaties song, or his a high “a,” believe it or not, in La Golandrina, or maybe even the Tech Fight Song. He loved to lead the songs at church and he was good at it. He learned from older men when he was young and he taught the younger men when he was older…how to use the pitch pipe and beat the time, etc. And, I think most importantly, he wanted to do it well. So he would practice at home, in front of a mirror, to get it right. And if he needed a little help with a melody, Mom would help him. He would work hard at it, just as he did at everything else–his job, the yard, the house, the church jobs–all done with HARD WORK–another thing I “caught” from my Dad–WORK HARD.
The third book was from Tech HS, called “400 Words Everyone Should Be Able To Spell”. Doing things RIGHT, mattered to Dad. How it looked. He had very neat handwriting even into his last years. Small numbers, tiny print, etc. And he kept this ready reference book handy (I believe) so he could check his spelling. And if he needed some help, he ASKED MOM. I have a picture in my mind of him sitting at the office table, and summoning Mom from the kitchen, he would seek her assistance. She would be there in her apron, dish towel and dish hand, looking over his shoulder, checking his work and giving her help or approval. What was caught, more than taught? If you need something done right… ASK MOM! (she was the first Spell Check, by the way).
Book number 4 was car book–a Ward’s mileage book, where he kept a record of every trip, every gas fill (to check mpg) and every maintenance done on the car. And it really was a record of their life. Where they went travelling, what they did and who they visited. And he had a brand new one for this year, ready to use. He loved his cars and could tell you every single one he had, beginning with 1941 Chevy Coupe (?). He was a Chevy man, then digressed for a few years to Plymouth and Dodge, and then returned to General Motors. And then I guess they had a sale on red Cadillacs, that was their favorite. It was his pride and joy to drive and to take care of. Washed, cleaned, swept out regularly with a whisk broom, and always looking brand new. And that was the lesson observed, TAKE CARE OF WHAT YOU HAVE. And that, of course, extended to us, and so it wasn’t surprising that during my last visit with him, he said, “Take care of your Mother.” Take care of what you have and those around you.
And so, thanks Dad, for the many lessons you taught us; not just these 4, but so many more. Rest now, from you labors, and know that your work was not in vain.
Bob Greene’s book about his father’s death reports conversations he had with Paul Tibbetts, who lived in retirement not far from the Green family home in Columbus, OH. For those who might not know, Paul Warfield Tibbets, Jr. (February 23, 1915 – November 1, 2007), was a brigadier general in the United States Air Force, best known as the pilot of the Enola Gay – named for his mother – the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb in the history of warfare. That bomb, code named “Little Boy,” was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in August 1945.
Any child of “Greatest Generation” parents, especially those of us who are losing or have lost them, can surely relate to Greene’s reflection on this Memorial Day. Today I am remembering James H. Wolfgang (August 13, 1922 – March 20, 2015), whose one and only “European trip” was via Omaha Beach in 1944, and for whom Memorial Day was always very meaningful.
“Do people know my name?” Tibbets asked. He was repeating the question I had just asked him. A soft, private look crossed his face.
“They don’t need to know my name,” he said. The deed he had carried out was one of the most famous the world has ever known; it will be talked about in terms of fear and awe forever. He, though, even here in the town where he lived, was not as famous as the local television weatherman.
“People knowing my name isn’t important at all,” he said. “It’s more important—it was more important then, and it’s more important now—that they know the name of my airplane. And that they understand the history of what happened. “Although sometimes I think that no one really understands the history.”
And so we started to talk. Neither of us knew it that day, but it would be the first of many conversations—about the war, about the men and women who lived through it, about their lives, and the lives of their sons and daughters: the lives of those of us who came after them, who inherited the world that they saved for us.
As I sat with Tibbets that first day—thinking of my father in his bed just a few miles away—it occurred to me that Eisenhower was dead, Patton was dead, Marshall was dead, MacArthur was dead. And here was Tibbets, telling me in the first person the story of how the great and terrible war came to an end.
… gradually the stories would expand in context, would begin to explain to me certain things not just about this man, but about the generation of men and women who are leaving us now every day.
It is a wrenching thing, to watch them go. As the men and women of the World War II generation die, it is for their children the most intensely personal experience imaginable—and at the same time a sweeping and historic one, being witnessed by tens of millions of sons and daughters, sons and daughters who feel helpless to stop the inevitable.
For me, as my father, day by day, slipped away, the over-whelming feeling was that a safety net was being removed—a safety net that had been there since the day I was born, a safety net I was often blithely unaware of. That’s what the best safety nets do—they allow you to forget they’re there. No generation has ever given its children a sturdier and more reliable safety net than the one our parents’ generation gave to us.
The common experience that wove the net was their war. And as I began to listen to Tibbets—to hear his stories, later to question him about the America that preceded and followed the war from which his stories came—I realized anew that so many of us only now, only at the very end, are beginning to truly know our fathers and mothers. It was as if constructing that safety net for their children was their full-time job, and that finally, as they leave us, we are beginning to understand the forces that made them the way they were.
Tibbets began to speak, and as I listened I thought I could hear a rustle of something behind the words—I thought I could hear the whisper of a generation saying goodbye to its children.
James Harold Wolfgang (1922-2015) – A Remembrance by James Stephen Wolfgang
Remarks read at my father’s funeral, which included hymns, selected by the family from a list of those Dad often led, sung by the audience: Soldiers of Christ, Arise! — There Is a Habitation — In the Morning of Joy
Many thanks to my friend David Malcomson, a deacon at the church of Christ in Downers Grove, who has come down from the western suburbs of Chicago to lead us in song today; and to Josh Coles for his remarks. My brother John also has some comments to follow after I finish. Josh’s remarks reminded me in part of the inscription on the grave marker of the original Wolfgang ancestor, Johann Nicolaus Wolfgang (1711-1790), nine generations before me, who came through the port of Philadelphia in 1732 and settled in the Pennsylvania “Dutch” (Deutsch) area near Lancaster and York, PA – where he lived and farmed when the Continental Congress fled when chased out of Philadelphia by the British Army during the American Revolution. If you were to go to the old Stone Church in southern Pennsylvania, near the Mason-Dixon line, you would read on his marker the sobering admonition, in German, roughly translated as: “Take heed, all who pass by – this too shall be your end.”
And thank you all for coming so that we might pay proper respect to my father, and remember his life’s work. I want to share, briefly, some memories of my Dad, distilled to two pages. While it is my intent to praise him with recollections of fond memories, I know well that my father was not perfect, and he would have no wish to make him so. To repeat a phrase, I would not enlarge him in death beyond what he was in life, but rather remember him simply as a good and decent man. In many ways, he was an ordinary guy who, with the help of the Lord and my mother, accomplished some extra-ordinary things – chiefly through his diligent devotion to Christ, and to Christ’s church.
Upon reading my father’s obituary, my good friend Matt Bassford wrote, “May the Lord feature as prominently in all our obituaries!” Another old friend, Mike Willis, remarked, “This world no longer held anything for him.” Due respect to Mike, that is true – with one major exception: my mother, Jean, the apple of his eye, the love of his life, his bride of 68 years, whom I heard him praise frequently to us, his children, and others, as the source of much of whatever good our family experienced and accomplished. When Dad was leaving Community Hospital 6 months ago, recovering from the pneumonia which dictated his move to Westminster Village, one of the nurses who had cared for him for a week murmured to my mother, “Not many people can say they have been married to the same person for 68 years!” Indeed.
He was a good Daddy to me – and to my siblings. Despite what my sister Janet may claim about me being the “favorite child,” the truth is that, while as the firstborn “rank doth have its privileges,” they too were treated well (and I note for the record that I WAS outnumbered 2-1)! Dad worked hard to provide his kids with numerous advantages – working overtime to pay for field trips, summer camps and study abroad as far away as Israel; paying private college tuitions because he wished his children to have a spiritual dimension to our education which was not available in less expensive state universities; and providing musical instruments including piano, organ, and various stringed instruments so that our lives could be enriched through the magic of music. In the file of digital photos you will find a picture of John and me standing in front of the shop of William Moening & Sons in Philadelphia – makers and importers of fine, classical musical instruments, which Dad bought for us. I played one of those expensive instruments for several years, and John then took over and performed on it in international competitions as a member of Bruce B. Fowler’s outstanding orchestras in Chicago and elsewhere.
Dad was not naturally musically gifted, but when the opportunity arose to learn how to serve the Lord’s people by leading a congregation in hymn worship, he devoted countless hours to learning and mastering the skill sets necessary to properly sound the pitch of a hymn and then direct it – LEAD! – with the correct beat pattern, thus uniting a congregation in melodious harmony. Under the instruction of several Christians who were also graduates of the renowned Indiana University School of Music, Dad became, in the words of one Christian who sang under his direction, “a great song leader.” While I too have learned about music from similarly-gifted music teachers, much of what I know about leading a congregation in song I learned first from James H. Wolfgang.
Dad inherited from his father, James O. Wolfgang, a love of intricate and interrelated machinery of many kinds, from the small-but-complex single-lens reflex camera he used often and cared for lovingly, to the huge multi-color web presses at the Indianapolis Star – huge machines which drank ink by the barrel and were fed forests of pulp so that Hoosiers could “read all about it” –which Dad took his son to observe and instruct in the chemistry of proper ink-and-water balance and other matters. In childhood I became fascinated with the marriage of man and machine, watching James H. Wolfgang, master of his craft, operate the one-man letter-press which resided in the basement of our house on Eustis Drive – each page carefully (and dangerously) hand-fed between speedy revolutions of cast-iron heavy metal. A careless person could easily mangle a hand – but Dad was not careless. While I never came close to mastering type-setting from a California job case, it was fascinating and challenging to try to learn it under his expert tutelage.
When the time came – dictated by changes which produced the transition of the printing craft from mechanical to digital, mandating the passing of a technological era – and led to his press being broken in pieces (an event I think I may have experienced more as a tragedy than did he), he said, simply, “I have no need of it any longer.” My Dad’s press was “rescued” and, in a sense immortalized, by a photo taken by Don Distel, my cousin Janet Jane’s husband – a photo which evermore graces the cover of a Howard Sams textbook, ironically, about HTML.
Dad’s love of fine machinery extended to his automobiles (lately, red Cadillacs), which he treated with lovingkindness. I can recall many a time when, as the oldest child, I was “privileged” to help him wash and wax our cars, with the help of his beloved chamois (a “Shammy” to us Hoosiers!) and a “whisk broom” – terms and items likely unknown to younger generations. He taught me the basics of how an automobile works, what is the use of a timing gun, or the importance of little things like installing a running light in 1961 to make the family car more visible and thus safer. One of my favorite memories was the winter we spent significant time together while constructing and assembling a 1/8-size, moving-parts model of an internal combustion engine.
Dad was a teacher of other things as well. Together, he and another Little League coach stayed late to help me overcome my petrification of being hit by a pitch hurled with all the precision of a 9-year-old’s arm. Imagine my joy to discover that I could actually hit the ball before it hit me – and could become a pretty fair hitter. Much more significantly, my first glimmer of the profundity of the concept of “justification by faith” came in a teenage class he taught on the book of Romans. Try doing that with a class of rowdy teens and you will not only discover the difficulty, but test patience and endurance as well!
In class teaching, functioning first as a deacon and then as an elder in two congregations, and serving as trusted treasurer of two churches, Dad did, as someone put it recently, “much of the unseen ‘grunt work’” which is necessary for any organization to function properly. He thus provided services and opportunities for others to worship God – including those who too often show up only to observe and criticize. Dad did this not because he craved the limelight, but because he knew that “a servant is not greater than his Master.” In the digital video, John included a photo of him working at his “desk” – the dining room table – where he sat to write out the monthly checks for evangelists supported by the church. Anyone who has preached, or was raised in a minister’s household, well understands the importance of maintaining that lifeline as Dad did – timely and regularly. I can recall him sitting us down, map of the world in hand, to show us where those checks went: “this one goes to Leslie Diestelkamp in Nigeria” or one “to Gordon Pennock in North Dakota,” or “that one to Piet Joubert in South Africa” or men in Japan or the Philippines or “parts unknown.” Talk about a powerful lesson in enabling others to evangelize overseas!
That dining room table was also an instrument of hospitality, another important lesson taught us by both my Dad and Mom. To be able to sit at table and share conversation – and the delicious food that Mom prepared! – with the likes of a James R. Cope, or Franklin T. Puckett, or a Robert F. Turner – preachers of renown in bygone days who are now largely forgotten by successive generations; men of wit and verbal skill and Godly devotion – made a lasting impression on me. And my parents’ “hospitality” extended outside the home: a recent visitor to Eastside described for me how meaningful it was to see both of my aged parents “wobble,” as she put it, “on their walkers, all the way across the building to greet me.” Small acts of kindnesses do live on in the memory of others. Thank you, Daddy!
“Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us” (Sirach 44:1).
Parable of Immortality
I am standing upon the seashore.
A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength, and I stand and watch until at last she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says, “There she goes!”
Gone where? Gone from my sight . . . that is all.
She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of destination. Her diminished size is in me, not in her.
And just at the moment when someone at my side says, “There she goes!” there are other eyes watching her coming . . . and other voices ready to take up the glad shout . . . “Here she comes!”
This poem, variously attributed to Henry Van Dyke and Luther Beecher (cousin of Henry Ward Beecher), has been oft-quoted and by some considered overused. But it has been meaningful to me, even before my days as board chair of our local Hospice – with which it is sometimes associated – in Kentucky, before we moved to Chicago. It is even more so now, on the occasion of my father’s passing. Whoever wrote it, it seems an apt, though imperfect analogy of how we experience the departure of a loved one.
There are, course, many other hymns and other poetic expressions, describing the experience – to say nothing of Scripture. In the words of hymnist Tillit S. Teddlie: “Loved ones are waiting and watching my coming” (Heaven Holds All To Me, 1932).
For more on the poem – sometimes titled “What Is Dying?” – see http://dallaslibrary2.org/blogs/bookedSolid/2014/04/i-recently-heard-the-poem-the-parable-of-immortality-in-searching-the-internet-i-found-it-attributed-to-henry-van-dyke-bishop-charles-henry-brent-and-even-victor-hugo-i/
Seventy years ago, in the early morning hours of 16 December 1944, Allied troops in Europe were awakened by artillery barrages and the sounds of German armored infantry beginning a surprise attack that penetrated Allied lines, creating a “bulge” in the front over the next few days and weeks.
My father, now 92 but then only 22 years old, was serving with the 654th Engineering Battalion – a unit of map-makers, printers and lithographers, trained largely in the urban Midwestern technical high schools of Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Cleveland, etc. (in my father’s case, Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis). Like most of the common soldiers and support troops of WW2, they were largely drawn from the high school classes of 1940,’41, ’42, and ’43.
In the very first chapter of Citizen Soldiers (arguably his best book), Stephen Ambrose identifies the production and distribution of maps such as those produced by the 654th Engineering Battalion as “a critical and never-ending process – eventually in the Normandy campaign, the U.S. First Army passed out 125 million maps.” About 25 years ago, I found in the bookshop of London’s Imperial War Museum several copies of a history of WW2 told by the use of the maps used by any Allied unit wondering what’s the best way to get where they were supposed to go next – several of the maps in that book bore the imprint of the 654th Engineering Battalion.
In December 1944, Dad’s unit had established a map depot containing 1.5 million maps in the Bock Tannery on the banks of the River Ambleve at Stavelot, Belgium. Here’s the account from the official unit history of the 654th Engineering Battalion, produced shortly after V-E day in 1945 by those who served in the unit:
“Although we had a paratroop alert, and heard some unexplained artillery racket from the direction of Malmedy [about 6 miles away, and about which more later—JSW] nobody expected any real excitement. The first indication that things were getting pretty warm was on the evening of Sunday, December 17, when a sentry from another engineer outfit rushed into our orderly room with word that he had seen German tanks and had been fired on at a road block less than a mile away, across the river. He was sent back to his unit to report, and a little later ha and another man from his unit recrossed the bridge in a jeep to see if the road back was still being held. They had just got across the bridge when they drew a heavy burst of enemy fire, wounding both of them and wrecking the jeep…In the meantime we had taken up defensive positions along the riverbank with our machine gun set up to guard the bridge…
“Since our orders were to hold out until relief arrived, we knew we were in for a hot night. Heavy firing broke out along the river. Mortar shells and machine gun slugs were coming our way, and we answered them with our carbines. From midnight until dawn of December 18th we alone held Stavelot against the German First SS Panzer Division. If the German commander had known that the east bank of the Ambleve, which he wanted very badly to cross, was being held by a mere handful of surveyors, draftsmen, and clerks, he could have sent his tanks roaring across the bridge and up the back road to Spa and Liege. As it worked out, we kept Jerry ducking all night long. Our carbines silenced at least one German machine gun which was operating only fifty yards from the main warehouse of the map depot, and by morning, when the armored infantry arrived to take over the defense of Stavelot, our line was intact, and the line of the main German thrust had swung to the south, trying to find a softer spot in American lines… When we pulled out in the morning [under orders from above to fall back toward Spa and Trois-Ponts, deemed by the Allied brass to be more defensible] we hadn’t lost a man, we had held our position, and we had caused the enemy, with his determination, casualties and plenty of trouble.”
According to some of the “standard” histories of WW2 – usually composed decades later by using many such unit histories, interviews, letters, and many other source documents – the engineers from the “other unit” were elements of the 291st Engineering Battalion, which was in part responsible for the removal and documentation of at least 76 American corpses slaughtered – machine-gunned to death while standing in an open field, having surrendered and been disarmed by the Germans. This was the infamous Malmedy Massacre at the Baugnez Crossroads, only about 6-7 miles from Stavelot where the 654th was stationed (the definitive account is Crossroads of Death by James J. Weingarten, University of California Press, 1979). They were not the only disarmed POW’s massacred by German forces during the Battle of the Bulge.
Had the 654th realized that the Germans they were facing across the Ambleve was the notorious Kampfgruppe Peiper, they might have had a more sobering perspective on their predicament. The commander, Joachim Peiper, was the “point of the spear” of the German attack sweeping west to seize river bridges all the way to Huy. Indeed, even the armored infantry which replaced the 654th at Stavelot was unable to hold the bridge the following day; an attempt to blow the bridge before the Germans could cross was evidently stymied in part by the infiltration of at least two of Colonel Otto Skorzeny’s English-speaking German troops operating behind the Allied lines in captured American uniforms and Jeeps. Peiper’s uncharacteristic hesitation that night at Stavelot was probably as much an attempt to regroup his men, who had been fighting steadily for 36 hours, as well as allow the remainder of his armor, stretched out for miles behind him, to catch up to Peiper’s lead elements. Had Peiper known that Stavelot was the site not only of the map depot, but also one of the largest Allied fuel depots in all of Europe, storing millions of gallons of gasoline, he would no doubt have stormed across the bridge without hesitation.
Over the decades, often relying on the first-person accounts in the 654th unit history, I have tracked the course of where my father was stationed all across Europe, beginning at Tetbury, England (near the current summer palace of Prince Charles in the Cotswolds – where the 654th assembled the huge 6-inches-to-the-mile 3-D relief map of the Normandy beaches used by Eisenhower and the top brass for the main briefing in London, including Churchill himself, of the D-Day invasion – described in the opening chapter of Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, and formerly discussed on this blog). The trail then led across Omaha Beach, through Paris, across France and Belgium, and ultimately across the ruined Siegfried Line and the wreckage of Aachen into Germany (first stop at Bad Godesburg, north of Koblenz and about 2 miles from the famous Bridge at Remagen).
One of the most memorable evenings in our “family history” was taking my children to Bad Godesburg nearly 50 years after their grandfather was there, having supper at a sidewalk café within sight of the stanchions of the ruined “Bridge at Remagen,” explaining to a very attentive audience the significance of WW2 and the “citizen soldiers” like their grandfather who each played their part in the “Mighty Endeavor.”
Often accompanied by my good friend and former student, Steve Wallace – who during his 20+ years living in Germany has forgotten more about WW1 & WW2 battlefields than most of us will ever know – I have located many of the places my father’s unit occupied decades before. This included a foray into the Belgian woods with a metal detector (with permissions from the museums and authorities controlling those sites) which produced a buried, mud-encrusted but relatively well-preserved Nazi helmet not far from Spa; it occurred to me then that “the guy who wore this might well have shot at my Dad!” That helmet now resides in my office at home.
Today my father is in a nursing home in Indianapolis, his mind still clear and his resolve strong despite the fact that his body will no longer do everything he wants it to. My thoughts and prayers are with him tonight, as I consider the circumstances he and millions of his comrades faced seven decades ago. Thanks, Dad – I love you!
From my eloquent youngest daughter, about her daughters, life, death, and sacrifice.
UTTERLY HELPLESS — Posted by Lindsay Wolfgang Mast — 9-30-14
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
It happened faster than anyone was prepared for. My husband, our three-month-old, and I were lingering over coffee at one of the campsites we were sharing with several other families for the weekend. We were enjoying being in the woods with a group that has been going on this annual camping trip for more than a decade now. About two dozen children, including our two older children played in groups either in the woods or on the playground.
Suddenly, rising above our conversation, the bird noises, and the squeals of happy children, was a sound quite unlike any I’ve ever heard. It was a scream, a child’s scream. It seemed to go on and on. Instead of the usual dissolving into sobs, it grew louder, more urgent, and was soon joined by the same scream from other children. I suddenly understood fully why such a sound is described as ‘blood curdling.’
As fast as Melissa, another mother in the group, could say “Adults. That’s a cry adults need to go to!” there were about ten of us on our feet, trying both to move toward the sound and to figure out who the screams belonged to.
As the sound persisted,I thought “Someone in this group is going home without a child.” I wasn’t sure what mess we were about to behold, but I pictured blood, or lost limbs, or small bodies being crushed. Or all of the above.
One of the teenage girls was already holding our baby, so I was able to start running, but I was nowhere near as fast as the men in the group. Before I could even reach the trail, they were there, and helping the three children who were being attacked by a huge nest of yellow jackets.
My six-year-old , frozen in fear, was getting the worst of it. It was her piercing scream that had first punctured the air. Faster than it seemed possible, our friend Clayton had gotten to her, leaping over a creek and snatching her from near the nest. He literally threw my sturdy, 63-pound child back over the creek to my husband. They moved onto the trail, with my older daughter and another little girl. I got there as they were stripping her down and rushing her further away from the nest. My older daughter and her friend were being attended to by a couple of other people. It was now that I realized it was some sort of stinging insects, and I realized I was completely helpless to do anything to help my children—I tested allergic to them in my teens, and I’m supposed to carry an Epipen for it.
In another instant, as the rush to get the girls away from the nest continued, the remaining insects began to swarm. I saw a black cloud some yards away, and heard the buzzing of what had to be thousands of angry yellow jackets. “They’re swarming!” someone yelled. “Get to the tents!” I saw that another friend had the baby, and was headed away from the bugs, so I headed for our tent. As I approached it, our oldest, who had already gone to take cover there, came shrieking out of it. She ran to me, and I could see that she was still covered in yellow jackets. They were on her shorts, her shirt, and in her very long hair. “Mommy! Mommy!!!!!!” she cried. My instinct was to help her, but I also was terrified of being stung myself. Another dad in the group was nearby and I shouted at him “Jared! Help her! Take off her clothes! I’m sorry, I’m allergic!” He stripped her down and I got inside the nearby tent where someone had taken the baby.
Things got calmer after that. From inside the tent, I could see my husband and some of the others taking care of both our girls. I could hear the anguished wails of my middle daughter. They stopped counting her stings at thirty. My husband had about ten; my oldest had eight. The other little girl had two or three. Some of the other adults had five or so. I could do nothing but listen and ache to be near them.
When it finally seemed safe to get out of the tents, I went to them. It was around then that someone mentioned Clayton. I didn’t realize until this point that he had gone straight into the area of the nest to get the children out. “How is he?” I asked.
“Pretty bad,” they said. “He’s in the shower. They got him pretty bad.”
Pretty bad, indeed. My six-year-old wanted to see him as soon as possible to thank him. At first, he seemed okay, and felt better after his shower. But as the minutes passed, he started to swell. He developed welts in places he wasn’t stung. The nurse in the group looked distressed, and soon sent him and his wife off to town to go to the ER. We prayed and waited to hear word.
Finally his wife texted the only one of us who had cell service, that he was hooked up to an IV and was getting steroids. He arrived back at camp several hours later, less puffy but clearly drained. By this point, the children he had helped were a little itchy and swollen, but after some Benadryl, also ready to eat burgers and s’mores and settle in for another night of camping.
I was, and still am, in a place of extraordinary gratitude to God for watching over our children that day, for giving them Clayton and the other adults who flew to their rescue, and for sparing them from any long term damage, or worse. I also have been pondering since shortly after that incident, the question of, how do you adequately thank someone who saves your child’s life? If she’d continued to be the target of an attack that vicious, it’s entirely possible that we’d be planning a funeral today, and not her birthday party.
The bottom line is, nothing seems enough. Clayton, a father of four himself, dashed in to a very dangerous situation to save a child who was helpless in the face of extreme danger. When he got to her, she was frozen, mouth agape, screaming, while being stung repeatedly. Did you know yellow jackets leave a scent on the mark of their fury, signaling that others should attack there, too? She needed rescue. She needed it fast and she needed it desperately. He put his own well-being aside to help a small, weak, human, and ended up taking the brunt of the pain in return.
I was not the direct recipient of the saving in this case, but I can’t shake the feeling of helplessness that I experienced in not being able to aide my own children. And nothing—except our condition outside of Christ— compares to how truly helpless the children were to get out of danger. They couldn’t save themselves. But someone paid a price to get them out of harms way.
“He saw me plunged in deep distress
And flew to my relief;
For me He bore the shameful cross
And carried all my grief,
And carried all my grief.”
“Since from His bounty I receive
And flew to my relief;
For me He bore the shameful cross
And carried all my grief,
And carried all my grief.”
In the stillness of the nights since then, as I nurse the smallest of my children, those words from “Majestic Sweetness” have resounded in my head. My savior saw the deep distress I was—we are— in without him. He recognized my complete inability to save myself from my sin, from my own stumbling ways, and from the attacks of the devil. And before I even realized I needed him, he gave up Heaven to come down and save me from it, at the cost of his own life. I can have only reaction—I have been completely humbled by my Lord’s sacrifice, and I am forever grateful.
Saturday night, knowing that Clayton had spent the day in the hospital and that he had paid his own very steep price to help her, I noticed that my daughter could hardy look him in the eye. She’s a smart kid, and I think she knew to a degree what he had done to help her. And she knows she can’t do anything to help him back. But I know she is grateful, as am I, and that we always will be.
So much more I must show my gratitude and service to the one who paid the ultimate price for my distress. When my soul is in danger, when I am under attack, he is there for me. Always. And for that, I am eternally humbled, and grateful, and ready to serve.
“Since from His bounty I receive
Such proofs of love divine,
Had I a thousand hearts to give,
Lord, they should all be Thine,
Lord, they should all be Thine.”