COMMENTARY – Time on Target: Memories and Gratitude
Note: This commentary updates an essay that first appeared on November 11, 2013.
Military veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam are dying by the hundreds every day. Human faces rest embedded in the data.
When J. Leland Gourley, at the time Oklahoma’s senior newspaper publisher, died in 2013, I remembered meetings involving a half-dozen editorialists – competitors and friends who had conspired during the 1990s to fashion common “messaging” promoting public education reforms in Oklahoma City, and supporting the historic MAPS for Kids referenda in 2001.
At one session among the writers, I suggested publication of similarly-themed commentaries for a particular weekend, for maximum impact.
Leland, the sage conservative, replied, “What we want is ‘time-on-target.’ ” The old World War II Third U.S. Army cannoneer explained the term for coordination of artillery fire from varied points – mortars, field cannons, battleships, bombers – so that all weaponry arrived on target at the same moment.
The most voluble of men, Leland rarely talked about his Army years, but often shared with younger colleagues his insight about times in life to follow orders, and moments to improvise, or days to go your own way.
I was in Jerusalem when Leland died, so I remembered him in prayers at the Western Wall.
Dr. James Pippin, who died that same year, spent his service stateside during the war. His book, “Miracle a Minute,” is laced with humor and pathos about those experiences and his later life.
His great battle came after his beliefs about the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit edged him away from the mainstream of a church he pastored. He recovered from a purge to have a blessed and abundant second ministry – and befriended me in my time of need in 2002-03.
Gabriel Duty, my unit’s Scout leader when I was a lad, also passed on in 2013. His time of trial came in the Pacific, with the 32nd Division, where combat heroism garnered him the Bronze Star. Before passing, the rail-thin Gabe regularly came to Veterans Day meetings of the Knights of Columbus Oklahoma Council No. 1038, still fitting into his uniform from 1945.
Norman Vaughan was 14, and member of a Boy Scout unit in a small Oklahoma town, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Many older Scouts immediately mustered into the U.S. Army; Norm begged his parents to sign papers so he could join, too.
In peacetime, he became a brilliant photographer, helping generations of Oklahomans learn to use film, including decades at the old Pipkin’s Camera shop on N. Classen Boulevard. He comfortably made the digital transition in his latter years at that business on the wide boulevard.
For a decade Norm and I were both in a Bible Study group. A few times, we gently nudged him for nuggets from the war. Like most in that generation, he normally demurred.
One night, we touched on the Holocaust, and a news item about those who deny it ever happened.
Softly, Norm began to speak, with these words: “If I could have an hour with those deniers, I could convince them.”
After boot camp, Norm had wound up in the Rainbow Division. In April 1945, that unit, with soldiers from a dozen states — including 17-year-old combat veteran Norm — linked up with the Fighting 45th Division, mostly Oklahomans, to free concentration camps.
Norm was in one of the first groups to walk into Dachau. For a time, they thought it was empty, but then poor creatures – like skeletons, they were so drawn and thin – began to creep out of the barracks and the alleys toward the liberators.
The G.I.s fell to the ground, cradling the survivors, feeding them K-rations or candy as they gathered round. Some of those rescued convulsed and died as they desperately gorged themselves on the proffered nourishment.
Norm told us a medic ran about telling the guys, “Go slow, slow. Pace it. Give them small pieces of bread, a nibble at a time, then a small portion of water.” That gentle labor took the next few hours, until scores of new soldiers arrived in relief, methodically to comfort and bring back from the brink many among the thousands of desperate souls.
Remembering, Norm was emotional that night of our Scripture study, with a bit of an edge in his voice as he repeated: “I could convince them.” Years later, I told that story in his eulogy.
Last month, Pastor emeritus Jim Vineyard of the Windsor Hills Baptist Church died. His obituaries emphasized his decades of ministry, and passionate support for the people of Israel. Many reviled Vineyard for his unflinching support of traditional teaching about every contemporary moral issue.
One of his closest non-Christian friends was Michael Barlow, a teacher union leader and education policy consultant who, in his latter years, grew deeply spiritual as he walked with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Once their friendship surmounted every difference, Mike, who passed away in 2015, called Vineyard “Brother Jim.”
I knew Vineyard best for the work he did to honor military veterans. Before receiving Christ into his heart (in 1964 – and he could name the exact date, hour and location of the transformation) he had served as a young man (service years 1957-61) in U.S. military operations in the highlands of IndoChina.
There, Vineyard encountered Dr. Tom Dooley, a U.S. Navy physician who worked 18-20 hours a day to combat disease among the native people. Vineyard told me that Dooley’s character and love for his patients planted seeds in his own heart. He gave me copies of all of Dooley’s books, including “The Edge of Tomorrow,” to which I have returned often for inspiration.
In his years at Windsor Hills, before retirement in 2007, Vineyard organized an annual Veterans Sunday at which he and his flock honored U.S. veterans – Caucasian, African-American, Latino, Vietnamese and every other American ethnicity.
One of those to whom he paid tribute was my dear father, Bruce Frederick McGuigan.
When tribute was paid, Daddy was unable to mount the stairs to the church pulpit, so a member of Vineyard’s staff brought down to the church floor a beautiful plaque that honored his Naval service in the 1950s. Unable to rein his emotions in his latter years, my father cried and cried. Vineyard teared up and said, “God loves a tender heart.”
Vineyard’s congregation also gave honors to my soldier son, Third Infantry Division combat medic and Iraqi Freedom veteran, Stefan Aleksandr McGuigan.
One by one, the older survivors of combat and time “in-country” are leaving us.
There will never be enough time or opportunity, or sufficient means, to say what should be said. Still, there is at least some time, some opportunity, some means.
This Veterans Day, I trust many Americans will spend some time on target – in peace and in security, with a cascade of memories and prayers of gratitude. That would honor and cherish, in diversity and unity, all the guys like Leland, James, Gabe, Norm and Jim.
With tender hearts, let us forgive our honored veterans any faults that linger in memory, as we honor service given freely.
I believe that when the roll is called up yonder, they’ll be there.