This Memorial Day, He Understood the Price
Shifty Powers at the grave of his friend, Skip Muck. Photo courtesy Peter van der Wal.
Every move we make this Memorial Day is a costly move.
A hotdog barbecued in the backyard is a lavish expense. The price of watching a parade is exorbitant. Admission to the National Memorial Day Concert on the west lawn of the United States Capitol is incalculable.
On the last Monday of May we honor the men and women who pay for our freedom. The cost of their immeasurable sacrifices is foundational to every move we make.
How difficult it is to grasp that freedom is not free—and more so to live in light of that reality. Most of us experience war by hearing news or debating ideas. We read memoirs or watch war movies or talk to veterans. Still, it’s hard for us to grasp what those who fight for our freedom actually go through.
But narrow the focus. Perhaps then the cost becomes easier to appreciate. What has one person paid so we can live in freedom today?
Meet Shifty Powers. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, he was a soft-spoken 18-year-old from Virginia. After nearly two years of hard training, he parachuted into France on D-day and fought for a month in Normandy, eighty days in Holland, thirty-nine days in the harshly cold winter of Bastogne, and nearly thirty more in Haguenau, France, and Germany.
Total price of Shifty’s time in military service: three years of his youth.
One of Shifty’s good friends was a muscular Washingtonian named Bill Kiehn. One morning while holding the line in Haguenau, Bill came off duty. Exhausted, he went to take a nap in the basement of an empty house. A stray artillery shell flew in, struck the house, and exploded. By the time they dug Bill out, he was dead.
Bill Kiehn is a specific example of someone we remember on Memorial Day, and not the only friend of Shifty’s killed in action. The names ring out like a laundry list of lost potential—Skip Muck, Bill Dukeman, Thomas Meehan.
Total number of friends from Shifty’s company who died in the war: thirty-nine young men.
Shifty was stationed in Austria near war’s end. His name was picked out of a hat to go home early. He had never been wounded during the fighting, but on his way back to headquarters, the truck he rode in collided head-on with another army vehicle. Shifty broke one arm and his pelvis, and suffered other injuries. He came home from war in casts.
Total time Shifty spent in recovery: twelve months in hospital.
Even with victory, the young man who had gone to war was not the same man who came home. Shifty was plagued by nightmares, unseen fears. He got into fights. For a while, he drank too much. He was an ordinary man, but he had seen horrific extraordinary things. For decades he quietly processed the battles fought. Work, family, faith, and community helped.
Total time Shifty spent processing the war: the rest of his life.
When I examine Shifty Powers’ story, I see a man who paid greatly for freedom. He fought for his country when it immediately came under attack, and he also fought for the futures of all free peoples.
Decades beyond World War II, surely I am one who benefited. That I can vote in presidential elections and not bend my knee to Hirohito’s grandson is testament to the enduring work of the veterans of World War II. That I can write books for a living instead of sweating in a Third Reich factory is a product of Allied triumph.
Still, others paid more than Shifty, as he would be the first to tell you. Those who paid the ultimate price are those we specifically remember on Memorial Day.
What is my hope for this holiday? I hold one picture closely in mind. It’s a photograph of Shifty as an old man, returned to Europe to place flowers on the grave of his friend, Skip Muck, killed at Bastogne. The grief and honor are still fresh on Shifty’s face. This example is what I glean from a man like Shifty Powers, and hope to remember.
He understood the price.
Question: Why is Memorial Day significant for you? What do you hope that people know about this holiday?