Unknown Soldiers

by Bruce R. Gelder

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    Kim already thought Cindee was weird. Now it looked like she was a “deserter” too. He didn’t know she was just fighting in a different battle.

    By the time Kim arrived at his early-morning seminary class, the students had already started singing the opening song, and he knew he was late. He walked in as quietly as possible, trying not to be noticed—not an easy thing to do in a class of 11.

    He sat down and joined the others in singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” The class sang the song often—very often, in fact. Jessica was the pianist, and “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was one of only two or three hymns she knew how to play.

    Scott, who sat next to Kim, caught Kim’s attention during the song and motioned toward Cindee, who was sitting behind them. His gesture drew an angry glance from Brother Barker, the teacher. Neither boy noticed the glare, however, and each turned and stared at Cindee.

    Cindee wasn’t the prettiest girl that Scott and Kim knew, but she wasn’t the ugliest, either. She didn’t realize that she sang off key, but Scott and Kim knew. Each shot a knowing look at the other, and then they snickered.

    After the prayer and the thought, Brother Barker began a lesson on service.

    Kim’s mind began to wander. He looked at his watch and thought about the math test he would have in fourth period. Then he looked up at the poster Brother Barker had displayed prominently in the front of the room:

    Painting Party
    Saturday 8:30
    Bring a Brush, a Friend,
    and Old Clothes

    Oh yeah, he remembered. Brother Barker had asked the class to help paint a widow’s house.

    The discussion about service was over, and Brother Barker concluded the class by talking about the morning’s opening song.

    “You know, we sing ‘Onward, Christian Solders’ a lot in this class, and I think that’s good. The song relates to each of us here—as well as to service. I’d like you to think about how it does and about what a Christian soldier is. We’ll discuss it tomorrow.”

    During Brother Barker’s discussion of the song the next day, he read slowly through each verse. Before he read the third verse, he asked the students to pay particular attention and to think what it meant to them:

    Like a mighty army moves the Church of God;

    Brothers, we are treading where the Saints have trod.

    We are not divided; all one body we:

    One in hope and doctrine, one in charity.

    “You see, we are the Christian soldiers,” he said. “Each of us is important, because we each serve individually as soldiers. But when we are united in our service, when we serve together as a class or as members of the Church, all of our individual efforts are added together and we become, truly, a mighty army working together for the good of others.”

    Brother Barker then reminded everyone to come to the painting party and to be united in their service on that day.

    The four cars in the church parking lot Saturday morning were enough to grant Brother Barker an overwhelming feeling of success. The vehicles had brought ten of his eleven students and, with them, an exuberant fireball of raw energy waiting to be bridled. The missing student was Cindee, who had left a message with Brother Barker that she was sorry, but she wouldn’t be able to come.

    The group said an opening prayer and then drove to an older house, where they gathered on the front lawn and listened to their instructions.

    It was a productive morning. There was little wind, and the smell of fresh paint soon filled the air. Gradually the house—once a dirty gray—brightened into a fresh pale yellow.

    “How did you do on your test yesterday?” Lynette asked Sue.

    “Really well, I think,” she responded. “Most of the questions seemed pretty easy. How about you?”

    “I think I did okay, too.”

    Their conversation persisted while they worked, floating like driftwood from one topic to the next. It finally landed on the subject of Cindee.

    “Hey, where is she, anyway? How come she didn’t come today?” Sue wondered.

    “I don’t know; she never comes to things like this,” Lynette answered.

    “I think it’s because she’s weird,” Kim piped in. He had been working his way toward Lynette and Sue and had overheard the conversation.

    Lynette came to Cindee’s defense. “Oh, come off it, Kim,” she said. “You guys are always so rude to her. I wish you would just grow up.”

    Kim yelled to Scott and Jared, who were also still painting. “Hey, Lynette thinks we should grow up. What do you guys think?”

    “Yeah, I say we should,” Scott replied, grinning mischievously.

    “Me, too,” Jared chimed in.

    “There. See how easy that was?” Kim said to the girls. “Actually, I do know where Cindee is—right this minute.”

    “Where?” Sue and Lynette both wanted to know.

    “She started taking singing lessons today,” Kim joked. He then mimicked an out-of-tune scale, which seemed to trigger the next round of revelry. Several of the group spontaneously began singing, “Onward, Christian Soldiers”—off key.

    It was too much for Brother Barker, who had been listening to the last few minutes of the conversation. He came flying around the house still holding a dripping yellow paintbrush. “You come down off those ladders right now,” he called firmly, wielding the brush as if it were a deadly weapon. His students descended quickly, looking sheepish.

    Brother Barker singled out Kim, Scott, and Jared. “You three have been hard on Cindee for long enough,” he said with authority. “Do you have any idea how she feels? I want each of you to do something for her or talk to her to find out what she thinks and how she feels—and I’d like each of you to do it by next Friday. Okay?” The teacher gave each of the students a piercing look, pressuring them to respond.

    “Okay,” each one said. Kim was the last one to agree.

    The rest of the painting party proceeded without incident.

    Kim watched the calendar each day, counting the days until his deadline. He knew in his heart that he should follow Brother Barker’s counsel and find a way to apologize to Cindee, but when he tried to picture himself actually doing or saying something, he realized that he just didn’t want to.

    And then it was Thursday. Kim had made up his mind that this would be the day. But it was too late.

    “Did you ever see Cindee?” Brother Barker asked Kim after the other students had left class.

    “Not yet. I’m going to see her today.”

    “That might be a little difficult. I got a call from Cindee’s mother last night. Cindee’s grandfather died yesterday, in Baltimore. Cindee and her mother have gone there to stay with her grandmother and to help prepare for the funeral. Since next week is the last full week of school, she told me that Cindee won’t be back.”

    Kim felt a sudden wave of guilt for his procrastination. At the same time, though, he felt relief—like he’d been let off the hook.

    “Oh, you might be interested in something else she said, too,” Brother Barker went on. “Cindee was in Baltimore on Saturday, reading to her grandfather and keeping him company. Apparently he’d been sick for quite a while, and Cindee’s been visiting him whenever she could. That’s why she couldn’t paint with us—and why she’s missed a lot of our activities.”

    Brother Barker let that sink in before he continued. “In her own way, Cindee’s been serving right along with us—maybe even a little ahead of us. We just haven’t known, that’s all.”

    Kim left Brother Barker’s class wishing he’d said something to Cindee—but not badly enough to do anything about it.

    The following Monday was Memorial Day. Ever since Kim could remember, his family had gone to Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day to lay flowers on the grave of his grandfather, who had been killed in World War II. Kim knew that his parents would want to go again this year, but this time he didn’t want to go with them. He had other things he’d rather do, and besides, he didn’t see the purpose of laying a bunch of dumb flowers by a tombstone.

    Early Monday morning, Kim’s family rose and prepared for the short drive to Arlington. As soon as the flowers were on the grave, Kim suggested that the family leave for home, but his father wanted first to see the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Kim went along grudgingly.

    When they got to the tomb, Kim looked at the uniformed marine ceremoniously guarding the graves of the unknown soldiers buried there. Then he read the inscription on the tomb: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

    Something about the setting touched Kim, but he wasn’t sure just what. He stood silently for a minute and watched the lone sentry parading slowly and deliberately from one end of the black walkway to the other. The guard stopped at each turn, then began the careful journey back. Everything about him seemed perfect: the spotless uniform, the polished black boots, the smooth cadence of his march. It seemed that the soldier felt no emotions, except that somber look on his face and the reverent spirit reminded Kim of something he had seen when he was ten.

    He had had two dogs, Runner and Tank. One day Runner was hit by a car on a seldom-used dirt road and killed. Kim was devastated. Tank was too, apparently; he stood guarding the spot where Runner had died from then until Kim’s dad finally brought him home in the family truck two days later. It was Tank’s only way of mourning a lost friend.

    Kim looked up again at the guard, and he thought he understood. This unknown soldier seemed to symbolize a part of the guard which had somehow been lost. His march was a respectful way of saying good-bye to that part of him—a lost friend—“known but to God.”

    Kim didn’t talk as the family drove home from the cemetery. All he could think about were the endless rows of tombstones he had seen there, many marking the grave of someone who had died in battle.

    Those who died in battle didn’t want to die anymore than I would, he realized. They had hopes and dreams and a family, just like me. How sad that they had to die so soon in their lives.

    And then Kim thought about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

    But if it’s that sad for them all to have died, he thought, what about those who fought and died but who couldn’t even be identified so that their families could experience at least some peace?

    Kim was quiet the rest of the way home.

    That night he lay awake, still unsettled. Several times he tried to picture himself as a soldier; it made him feel vulnerable. They were afraid, too, he realized. Just like I would be.

    Something made him think about Brother Barker’s lesson on service.

    “We should put ourselves in someone else’s place and think what we would want if we were in their situation,” he had said.

    What would I want if I were one of those soldiers? he wondered. Or what if I were an unknown soldier? What would I want then?

    He thought for several minutes before he found his answer: I’d want others to understand what I did.

    As if on cue, “Onward, Christian Soldiers” began playing in his mind, and he immediately visualized his seminary class. The melody of the song changed, when it reached the chorus, as if someone were singing off key. Kim then saw himself turning, with Scott, to make faces at the girl sitting behind them—Cindee.

    He winced a little as he remembered some of the things he and Scott had said about her before she left. He wondered whether she might have been more involved if not for them.

    Then it hit him.

    He hadn’t even known about what she was doing for her grandfather. Not only was she a Christian soldier but she was an unknown Christian soldier—her many acts of service were known “but to God.”

    Kim felt a chill go through his spine. What was it he had thought about unknown soldiers just minutes earlier?

    I’d want others to understand what I did, he had thought. Maybe that’s what Cindee had wanted, too.

    Kim slept poorly that night.

    Brother Barker was surprised by Kim’s request the next morning.

    “You want to know how you can reach Cindee now?” he asked his student.

    “Uh, yes, that’s right,” Kim replied. “Do you know how I can reach her at her grandmother’s place?”

    “No, although I think I could find out, but—”

    “Could you please? I’d like to apologize to her,” Kim concluded.

    Brother Barker carefully studied Kim’s face for a few seconds, then made a few calls. He finally got Cindee’s number.

    “You can call her from here if you’d like,” he said, motioning toward the phone with his head.

    When the phone call that morning was for her, Cindee answered it, wondering who it could be.

    Illustrated by Roger Motzkus