At Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland there is a gaming table where visitors would come to play chess, passing the time maneuvering the armies of warrior-images over an abstract battlefield, while crowds pressed in about watching. Nearby was a Starbucks pouring out the orders of the magic elixir. At a table the Old Man and I sat. We would discuss various things, tales from far and near. At times the Old Man would tell of his life-and a grizly life it was. A life as he put it,"That few would wish to live, but I would never regret having lived it."
From time to time we would read to each other. One day I read from a tome of historical lore:
"The strength of the officer corps lay in the English "private gentry, the French, "Noblesse d'epee" the Prussian Junkers and their equivalent in other lands. The qualities of these people were idealized by their most eloquent champion, the Prince de Ligne, who desired a body of regimental officers drawn from
'that class of poor and honourable gentlemen. Their ancestors had attained nobility through some warlike deed. They grew up as the sons of valient squires, who themselves were accustomed to country life and the hunt. From the age of twelve they conditioned themselves to hardship, sleeping in the woods with their dogs, arresting poachers, and fighting every now and then with a neighbors son over the possession of a hare.
-The Military Experience in the Age of Reason by Christopher Duffy
I flipped a few pages:
The mental conditioning began at an early age. According to the Chevalier de Ray,
"I spent my childhood in the castle whither my father had retired after the wars at the beginning of the present century, and I was entranced by the tales he told me. My imagination was fired by the accounts of his battles, and my soul took wing when he showed me his weapons and his scars".
The Old Man smiled as he sensed a moment of recognition.
I paused. Then I said,"That's you-isn't it?"
He replied,"What was it you once called me, 'A man born in the wrong age'"
"A magnificient anachronism."
"Ah, yes", he said, "Just like George C Scott"
"Patton would have liked you", I replied.
The Old Man smiled,"I know. He said so."
Then the Old Man sighed, "I suppose here, it would seem like a rather horrible way to raise a boy"
I replied, "Not to me, just different".
"We are different peoples", he replied. "Your people grew, threatened by nature-by the sea, the mountains the forest".
"You still have forests in your land." I inturrupted.
"Aye", he said, "Vast forests, once feared by the peasants who said that ghosts, goblins, and vampires filled them. You know what, sometimes I still cross myself when I go into a forest at night. So much for the twenty-first century, eh?"
"Of course, once you had a rational reason to do so", I said.
The Old Man smiled grimly, "So I did. Of course my foes had an even more rational reason, considering that I was there."
Then he continued, "Anyway, your country needed few men like me. Your country needed builders, managers, and toolmakers. Even when you make war, you make war the way you labor, with a fierce inhuman drive that few can match. My nation is different. All it's life the chief foe was Man. Sweedes, Russians, Turks, Germans and not uncommonly each other. Tis strange how many desire our poverty, is it not?"
"And your uncomfortably important geographical position."
"To true", he said,"Like a high traffic area with to few constables. Because of this we have fought them all. Often we failed and were oppressed by invaders. And, shame to say it, at times we have oppressed others. We are a nation of warriors
and while many times we have been defeated, none has denied our valor."
"And a nation with a valient Pope, God bless his soul," I said.
"Aye", he replied. "Tis strange-but somehow appropriate, that I should fight all my life to see my land free. But when I have finally given up, it is freed not by the sword but by the miter. It seems a miracle was saved for poor Poland."
"Is it a suprise that He would save a miracle for a doomed people?", I replied.
"No it isn't", he said,"Though sometimes I have thought it was long in coming."
Then he mused,"Some today would mock me and call me 'Don Quixote'. Perhaps. But I was always my own Sancho Panza. I always knew I fought for a lost cause-for several lost causes in fact. And I cared not a whit. Or I liked to think I didn't."
I nodded,"The point is to be honorable oneself. What matter if the world follow you?"
"Exactly", he said. "I have lived with that paradox all my life. One of my ancestor's rode with Jon Sobieski to deliver Vienna. I still own the very sword he carried with him-it is on loan to the Smithsonian."
"How did you manage to keep it from being pillaged by someone-or-other?"
The Old Man smiled, "That is a story in itself. But anyway, I knew from my youth that I was destined to be a warrior, that all my kin were warriors. But my father did not hide the other side. He did not hide that my ancestors had lived off the backs of their serfs, sucking them like human vampires. He did not hide what it was really like. He told me of the great day when he rode against the Bolshevics in 1920-one of our nation's few victories. But he also told me of the forageing, of the poor Jews, burgher-folk and peasants of the border zone, the victims of the desperation, and greed of both our side and theirs. When first I saw it, I was as ready as a boy could be. Even then it wasn't enough. Somehow I expected my foes to be different from my father's. I expected them to play by the rules of the previous century when gentlemen would slay each other, but never would hate. Some of my foes wanted that too. But the regime they fought for was a vile heresy-two vile heresies really, equal but opposite-that wished to turn men into demons and destroy what little Man has learned about how to treat his brethern. Perhaps that is what made my vocation more then a vanity. But somehow it suprised me. But I like to flatter myself that I never fought the way they did and hopefully I was right."
"Tis sad", I said, "That people like you aren't remembered."
He sighed, "That is the way the world works. We used to talk of 'glory' in that old day-a day when even then I sometimes felt more like a fairy tale then a real person. But I care not for that. What is left of my family knows me. The few friends who are here still know. And you-whom I count as friend, know."
I replied,"Yes, but it would be better if more knew of you and those like you. If only that we might remember not just those that came home with victory but those who did not."
"Well enough," he smiled, "It all started in a time long ago by the count of your country-and yet a wink be the count of my country, cursed with an interesting history. Long ago, when I was young and the world fell apart. It was the fateful year of 1939..."
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