by Ron Carnell
I was fifteen when Grandfather died,
his twisted body vanquished by too many years,
his mind confused by too many diluted memories,
his spirit still as strong and indomitable
as the day he first killed another man
to protect the life he loved.
It was hard for me to see the war hero he had been
within the wasted remnants of a wispy old man,
his flesh sunken between fragile bones,
his smooth, soft skin bleached paler
than the sheets that wrapped him
like a premature burial shroud.
It was hard to see the war hero he had been
until Grandfather opened his rheumy eyes,
the blue as pale as a winter sky,
as hard and cold as tempered steel.
When he opened his eyes and looked into your soul,
only then could you see it. Then you would know.
Those eyes were a pool of profound strength,
with unwept tears of pain and death floating
just below their placid, unbroken surface,
like ocean debris trapped within swift currents
and forever forbidden to emerge,
forbidden to pollute the sea that was his life.
But, still, the soiled debris was a part of him.
Grandfather survived the German occupation of his land,
fought life and death struggles in an Underground
that would not, could not accept the domination of others.
And when it was over, when he had outlived the death,
he had moved to a new land, a land of new-found friends.
In America, Grandfather built a new life,
while never forgetting the lessons of the old.
His melodious French was replaced with broken English,
the rifles with shovels, the knives with hammers.
But nothing ever supplanted his implacable courage,
nothing ever usurped his enduring strength.
Grandfather was a warrior, but he was also a teacher.
I listened to his words, saw his examples,
learned from the stories and histories he shared.
He showed me that courage and strength aren't independent qualities,
but rather are the inevitable results of abiding love.
"What you truly love," he would say, "can never be surrendered."
And Grandfather, more than most, loved Freedom.
I have since learned there are many who say it,
but few who really feel it.
And fewer still who understand it.
Grandfather once told me he never fought for Freedom.
He said, instead, he fought against domination.
We were sitting in the old wooden swing,
its paint as wrinkled and weathered
as the skin of my grandfather's aged face,
the sound of the river flowing through his yard
a backdrop for a classroom
with neither desks nor chalk boards.
"A man can never take away your Freedom," he told me.
"They can only take power and make you pay a higher price
when you choose to exercise it.
Hitler wanted to make that price a man's death.
There is always a price to be paid for Freedom,
but when the price becomes too high, a man must fight."
I remember he paused then, his irregular breath
like a clipped whistle as it wheezed past swollen nostrils.
I was used to his long lulls, a habit so many found irritating.
Grandfather was giving me time, I knew,
to ponder, to absorb, to believe.
And I knew, too, in knowing him, there would be more.
When he finally continued,
Grandfather's voice was almost a whisper.
"It works both ways," he said, leaning closer,
his minty breath an envelope around my face.
"A man can never take away your freedom,
and a man never grant it either."
Grandfather's voice had many tones within it,
and I had learned them all through the years.
"The laws of this country are good ones, mostly,"
he said in a reverent tone, an awed tone
that spoke of important lessons
to be learned.
"But you must always remember that its Constitution,
and all the laws Congress has passed since then,
don't give you one bit more Freedom
than you already have.
Laws are made by men. Laws change.
Your Freedom is part of you. It's forever."
I remember nodding my understanding,
and I remember Grandfather's hand falling to my shoulder.
He squeezed briefly, and I can only assume he was pleased.
It would be another two years
before he would lay in a death bed of virgin white,
and another two decades before I would really understand his words.
The Freedoms written within our laws are always conditional.
Freedom of the Press is amended by libel statutes,
and Search and Seizure laws are cast aside for Probable Cause.
All the laws, all the guarantees,
exist only at the whim of the courts and Due Process.
Any government based on unconditional Freedom
would necessarily be a government of unconditional anarchy.
Our laws don't grant people Freedom.
Our laws only set the price that must be paid
when a citizen chooses to exercise our Freedom.
But the Freedom comes from within.
Grandfather was not a religious man, but he was a Godly man.
And I think he knew.
Our Creator gave us not only our existence,
but he granted us Free Will,
that we might choose between good and evil.
And that power of choice is what Freedom is really all about.
There will always be a price to pay for Freedom.
The price is set by the hand of man, by the laws we make.
When we are wise and good, the price is one we can bear.
And when we are neither wise nor good,
there will always be men like Grandfather,
with the courage and strength to fight for what they love.