Today is the 80th Anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
1994 — Four elderly men stood before me. They had asked to talk to me, and I was very, very nervous. One of them was shaking with emotion and all I could think of was somehow I had offended them with something I had written in the play they had just seen.
Let me explain.
In 1994 I wrote and directed a play entitled “The Night Gift” about a “family” of workers in a Christian greeting card company trapped together in their penthouse office on Christmas Eve. My good friend and our best actor, Larry Robison, asked me to write him a bit part as an old curmudgeonly gentlemen. Larry would play the elderly Mr. Collinbird and at a pivotal point in the play, I wanted to change the mood from humorous to serious. Up to that moment, Mr. Collinbird had been hilarious and frankly, senile. The members of the office began to share their most memorable Christmases. When it came to Mr. Collinbird, everyone was expecting another silly story. Instead, he began to tell a very moving story about his childhood.
Mr. Collinbird told the story of Christmas,1941 when his father did not return from Pearl Harbor. The young boy went out into the woods and cut down the family Christmas tree on his own. During the tale, Larry “became” the young Collinbird and I came out on the stage dressed as his father with blood on my chest. I told my “son” he was now the man of the house, and I would not be coming home for Christmas.
It was a simple five-minute scene meant to change the tone of the play and to catch the audience off guard. They would be expecting Collinbird to be silly but instead they got a very poignant, moving story of the child who became the man. After the first night’s play, Larry came up to me and said there were four men who wanted to talk to the author of the play. These were the four men who now stood before me.
The trembling man wiped at his eyes and this is what he said:
“I wanted to thank you for honoring the men who fought in World War II. We are World War II veterans and I was at Pearl Harbor. Thank you for honoring us on Veteran’s Day.”
I was stunned! It suddenly hit me that this was Friday, November 11th, the original date for Veteran’s Day! I never intended to honor WWII veterans, but God had different plans. God knew who would be there that night and God knew they needed to be honored by the simple scene in this play. The play was performed for two nights only and as impressive and shocking as the first night’s response was, I was not prepared for what happened the second night.
After the second night’s play, Larry escorted an elderly woman up to me and introduced us. She also wanted to meet the author of the play. This is what she said:
“My brother died at Pearl Harbor, and I have been mad at him and mad at God ever since. Tonight, you helped me to say goodbye to my brother and to find peace with my Maker. Thank you!”
How do you respond to such a statement? I was truly humbled!
It would be eleven years before I wrote and produced “The Homecoming Tree”, a play telling the story of the young Mr. Collinbird, now Daniel Collinsworth. The story was based on my parents’ lives during WWII. They lived in a boarding house atmosphere and their relatives came to stay with them as the war unfolded.
To prepare for that play, I sat my parents down along with my brother. This was in 1999 (all three have now passed on) in front of an old-fashioned slide projector with photos from their lives. I recorded two hours of them talking about their lives growing up during the Great Depression and living through the second world war. What a precious, priceless treasure trove of wisdom! Those stories became the basis for the play.
In 2018 I released a novelization of the play. In the novel, a modern-day businessman finds himself suffering from amnesia and sent back in time to 1941. His elderly boss is a young boy in 1941 and “Ray” is taken in by the kindly owners of the boarding house. In a scene from the book, Ray knows that something terrible is going to happen on Sunday, December 7th but can’t remember. When the news arrives on the radio, he has an unusual experience where he is both in the present and in the past, seeing not only the young boy whose father is at Pearl Harbor but the old man who remembers what that day brought to his family. Here an excerpt from the novel:
“Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a day that will live in infamy,” A different voice now. Wasn’t that President Roosevelt? Darkness swam into cloudy light, and an old man sat next to him on a couch. Blood trickled from a wound on the old man’s temple. His pale blue eyes were opened, and he stared off into space. It was as if the old man was talking in his sleep. Who was he? Why did he have a wound on his temple? Where was Mikey when you needed him? Mikey? Who was Mikey? Hadn’t he stopped the mugger? But not before the man had shot him. Ray swam in clouds of confusion as the old man continued to talk.
“I remember it all. How could I forget? The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was complete. The attack came in two waves. The first hit its target at 7:53 Hawaii time, the second at 8:55. By 9:55, it was all over. Behind them, they left chaos: 2403 dead, 188 destroyed planes and a crippled Pacific fleet that included eight damaged and destroyed battleships. It is rumored that a Japanese commander made the statement ‘I fear all we have done is awakened a sleeping giant.’ My family listened to the reports of the attack on Pearl Harbor on the radio. We saw the news footage at the newsreels at the movie theater. I imagined my Daddy as one of the brave pilots who actually made it into the air to attack the enemy. But, the truth was he was probably on the ground at Hickman Field and never made it into the air. In the days to come, we would wait anxiously for news from my father. But in the confusion and chaos after Pearl Harbor, the government was more concerned about entering the war against Japan and Germany. They didn’t have time to track down one missing soldier. With only days left until Christmas, my mother, sister and I cared nothing about putting up Christmas decorations. We just wanted my Daddy to come home.”
Ray saw smoke billow; flames consume shattered airplanes, wings, and fuselages with the red dot of the rising sun moving through the bright sky. The world shuddered and contracted around him as evil and death warred for supremacy in his life and the world. The image of a woman with blonde hair floated in front of his eyes. She reminded him of Peggy Lou, but she wasn’t quite the same woman. A young boy ran across his vision chasing a small dog. The same old man who had been speaking floated across his mind. His face was swollen and bruised. Was the old man dying? They were all dying. The world was dying, drowning beneath a flood of blood. Ray swallowed and tried to cry out in horror.
“No! Don’t let it be so! Stop it! God, stop it!” He pleaded, but the world continued to swirl around him nonstop. The old man’s eyes opened, and he mouthed something Ray could not hear. Then, his features changed and smoothed and became the face of a young man and he was back in 1941.
The novel is set in 2001 at the beginning in a country reeling from the terrorist attack of September 11. Many adults remember that day and the horror and terror we felt at the sight of the World Trade Center collapsing in real time on our television screens. We also reeled under the report of the other downed airplanes, one crashing into the Pentagon.
Today, eighty years after the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor, we live in a world that is once again on the brink of chaos. Pandemic, Chinese aggression, Russian invasions, inflation, and the most egregious, hatred and division across our land on so many issues. The attack on Pearl Harbor united our country against an evil enemy and pulled us together in the cause of the effort of good to defeat evil.
I salute the families whose loved ones died at Pearl Harbor. I am thankful for every person who has ever served in our military to defend our nation against evil aggression. It is no longer fashionable to be patriotic, but we must remember what our country stands for as written in the opening words of the document that would change the world: The Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
So important those words: truth, created, equal, Creator, life, liberty, happiness. But most important inalienable. That means simply something that can never be taken away by human effort; something truly transcendent.
Today, my prayer is that we will recognize these words as a reflection of the Creator God who made us all equal in His image. If we truly recognize this, then the words of Paul in the book Galatians take on a fuller and more foundational meaning:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:26-28
We are all one, united, equal regardless of ethnicity, gender, social standing, and the list goes on. Christ united us in one body, adopted into His unity. Notice how important is the first part of those verses: “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith”. We have abandoned faith in that transcendent source and have made ourselves gods and goddesses. Be careful. This disconnect from a Creator God is exactly what drove the despots and dictators of the past to elevate themselves to a level of godhood. And we see clearly how those situations turned out.
Today as we thank those who sacrificed their lives in the purpose of defending a country determined to honor “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” let us realize that such a sacrifice means nothing if we do not honor the transcendent Source of all truth and love!
“The Homecoming Tree” is available at all online book stores in both print and ebook format.