Memorial Day Weekend
One of my earliest memories of having conversations with an older adult was on Grandma’s porch in Ludington with Uncle Dick. For years (and this continues) he began most stories with the phrase, “Stop me if I’ve told you this before.” Of course I never stopped him… partly out of respect and partly, because his stories typically gave me great comfort and a glimpse into the past. As the years went on the points of the stories changed subtly with my own life perspectives... first, as a child, then an adolescent; a young adult and finally a father and grandfather. I bring this up because I am about to repeat a story to illustrate my message. Many of you have heard it more than once but it will be new to others. I don’t dare begin with, “Stop me if you’ve heard this before.”
I have been fascinated with caves for many years. As a teenager I was part of a group that entered a cave in northern Indiana. This was not a tourist experience. It began with a walk in the woods on private property to a padlocked grate lying almost flat against the earth. A careful descent with the obligatory warning about snakes took us down into what became a crawlspace that led even deeper into the cave. Years later I read how a group of cavers were trapped when the rains poured down and flooded the crawlspace that separated them from the surface. At a point well into the cave I experienced what I believe everyone who has been in a cave at one time or another has experienced. The lamps are put out and you are in absolute darkness. You hold your fingers in front of your open eyes and wiggle them but there is nothing to trigger your optic nerves. There is nothing quite like the level of darkness you experience in a cave… unless you happen to be underwater.
In 2009 I was blessed to receive a Lilly Foundation grant that allowed me to dive in some extraordinary locations in and under the earth. While in the karst geography of the Mexican Yucatan I was training to expand my diving skills to gain certification as a full cave diver. An unexpected circumstance required the training agency to reach out to hire an outside private instructor at the last minute and I was blessed to be introduced to Ela Bertoni. She looked me up and down… stared me straight in the eye and asked, “Are you willing to leave your ego here on the ground?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “Then I will train you.” Thus began the first of many adventures and the acquisition of skills that I still value today.
At a later point in my cave diving training we entered a cenote and navigated far from our entry. Ela signaled for me to conduct an out of air drill. There are very few feelings like breathing the last partial breath from a dive regulator (which never quite fills your lungs.) I signaled that I was out of air by crossing my hand across my throat and she immediately pulled her regulator from her mouth, extended her long hose and handed it to me. She placed her secondary regulator in her mouth and then gave me an unexpected series of signs; “primary, light, cut.” I descended to the string that marked our path back to the surface and shut off my dive light just as she extinguished hers. This was absolute darkness…
Sharing air with Ela in the darkness I began the slow task of navigating out of the cave. It was made more complex by the various lines that intersected at tie-offs on stalagmites. It required me to gently pull back and forth to feel the ongoing line rather than following another line deeper into the cave. Time passes at a strange pace when you are navigating carefully through stalactites and around flowstones while sharing breathing gas with another diver. Your optic nerves search for anything to stimulate vision as your brain registers the rhythmic intake of breath followed by your exhaust bubbling away. Finally, there is an almost imperceptible change in color from the darkest black to purplish brown then green as we entered the cavern zone and swam towards the glory of sunbeams angling down from the cenote above us. It moves my heart to remember it even today.
Not long ago Uncle Dick and I visited his birthplace of Frankfort, MI. Surprisingly there was not a statue commemorating the event. Driving home we drove through the small village of Elberta which had named three of its streets after its sons who had not returned home from the Second World War. One street name held great significance to Uncle Dick as he reminisced about his friend’s Model A and the times they spent together as young men. We trusted his memory and drove down the street to the house where his friend had grown up. There in the window was a gold star.
There are moments in our lives when we find ourselves in darkness; sometimes seemingly absolute darkness. Our Scripture passage suggests that there is a light before us. Sometimes it is beyond our limited vision. Sometimes we need the resources of those around us, or those who have gone before us, just to keep moving in its direction. That may be the best use of this weekend we have named, Memorial… that we may pause to give thanks to those who have given their lives for us all.