A man on a bike slowly made his way along the dirt road. From the opposite direction, a column of eighty armored tanks crawled towards him like one giant, ornery caterpillar. As the two neared each other, the tanks uttered a pained moan as brakes were hastily applied and the entire procession ground to a halt. The hatch of the tank at the front of the column flung open, and the huge boyish grin of a young man named Eric De Vries emerged from the depths. “The war is over!” he shouted to the man on the bike. “It’s over!”
The year was 1945; the war was World War II. They were Canadian tanks, steadily advancing across the Dutch countryside just east of Amsterdam, with Germans hastily retreating ahead of them.
The man on the bike was my grandfather. He went on to get married, have six children and many more grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and today he feeds ducks in his backyard overlooking a small lake in Western British Columbia, with a large local mountain putting a sizable dent in his horizon. It is the kind of view people pay for.
Eric De Vries, the man in the tank, lived for thirty more minutes before a crazed bazooka-wielding German reduced that tank to a ball of flames.
I sat in a coffee shop last week, browsing over a stack of war stories my grandpa had written down and asked me to edit. I waded through the broken, matter-of-fact English with pen in hand, marking up grammar and spelling, until I arrived at this story. The poor storytelling and broken English could not lessen the sudden impact of the tragedy. I set it down, overcome by the bizarre sadness of it all.
It is a dark twist, too tragic for real life. In what kind of world does a man fight a war for five years and taste victory for only thirty minutes before his life is snuffed out? What kind of God lets that happen?
Nevertheless, this is the world we find ourselves in. It is too tragic for real life. Some may read this story and ask, “Why?” and for those, perhaps there is no answer. Perhaps the darkness cannot be explained. Perhaps we’re not supposed to explain it.
It’s a strange poetry, this world. It’s bizarre, tragic in an almost comedic way, where the laughter is anything but light-hearted and more akin to insane hysterics. Often, all we are left with is questions without very many answers.
Is it all meaningless? Is this the conclusion we must content ourselves with?
There is something offensive to us about this story, something difficult to grapple with. It took me a while to put a finger on it, to actually recognize why it troubled me so much. This story appears, on one level, to be a story about a purposeless death. One man enjoys a half hour of peace before death comes calling; another lives a full life of peace, to die in his bed at a ripe old age. Right?
But when my grandpa biked away from that moment in 1945, it was not into a future of peace. He lived to fight one more day; he lived, in fact, to fight a few thousand more days.
You see, evil, the grim spectre that snuffed the life of Eric De Vries far too early for our liking, did not die the day Germany surrendered. It continued. And my grandpa continued to pick a fight with it. An insatiable hunger for justice drove him through his life even into his retirement years, when he channelled Christian refugees through a bureaucratic obstacle course into North America. He fought, and fought, and fought, and carried with him the memories of those whose fight was over. Now, the closing act to his own fight has begun, and he has passed me a stack of papers that tells the tale.
Who celebrated peace that day in 1945? It wasn’t my grandpa. The day marked the end of a battle, a fleeting episode, but the war continued. Men continue to do evil things, and good people die. Sin continues to tear us apart.
Who celebrated peace that day?