As a kid I lived next door to a grizzled old World War I veteran. I seldom saw my grandfathers so I attached myself to the crusty old man who would let me sit on his patio and listen to tales of his long life.
Mr. McKeiver was unfathomably old to me. He recited lines from old radio shows and talked about getting whisky during prohibition. He once told me that when he was a boy, he heard tales of the Civil War from some of the ol’- timers. I wish I’d asked him to tell me their stories but the Civil War meant nothing to me, just a mythical battle in a kingdom far away.
He fought in the trenches of France, enduring infantry charges, artillery bombardments, trench foot, dog-sized rats and war-time brothels. He told a lot of stories, each more fantastic than the last.
He told me a lot of things no one should tell a kid, but he was from a different, rougher age when people didn’t censor themselves. It was an adult world and children were expected to adjust to the adults.
I thought he was telling me fables, fantastic, blood and guts tales of good and evil, like the Grimm’s fairy tales my mother read to me at night. In a way he was.
Then, his war buddies visited.
A still summer day saw a thick fog of pipe and cigarette smoke rise from beneath the wide umbrella on Mr. McKeiver’s patio. On the shaded concrete sat a small circle of bent and wrinkled old men, smoking and burning. Before the bourbon bottles came out and I was shooed away, I heard different, equally fantastic, versions of the same tales mixed with laughter and unspoken sadness.
Toward evening I was playing in the yard. The visit at Mr. McKeiver’s was breaking up. I remember seeing the old veterans hugging, patting each other on the back and looking back as they shuffled off, wobbly to their cars.
As I stood in my yard I wondered about the emotion and the bonds those men seemed to share, it seemed powerful to me.
The next day I asked Mr. McKeiver about his friends.
“We went through a lot, good and bad, but we were part of something big and meaningful. We were fighting the war to end all war,” he chuckled to himself, shaking his head. “We failed in that, but I was never more … alive.”
I would have forgotten his words except for the look, the fire in his eyes. I knew he was back there, a soldier, laughing, surviving, charging the lines, young and proud, fighting for beliefs, friends at his side – alive.
Over the years I’ve noticed others speak of those times they were called to a great task, something larger then themselves, something they believed in. I’ve heard Peace Core veterans longingly recount there time building clinics in Africa, missionaries walking dirt roads spreading the word, and my own grandfather recalling his time in World War II. All of them have known that sense of purpose that transforms you from a single soul to an agent of greater good.
In the most powerful cases there always seemed to be a sense of purpose, and bonds of hammer-forged friendship.
We need a sense of purpose. It might not be the right purpose or it might be one that ultimately fails, but we need purpose. Without it, life is only a series of pointless tasks and a growing pile of meaningless days. Purpose paints every moment with meaning and transforms adversity into the cost of greatness, gladly paid.
Hammer-forged friendship is something precious and rare. It is friendship formed in the fires of conflict and struggle. It’s an ancient alloy of trust, respect and love. It is also the secret of humanity’s survival.
For a million years, from times preceding our humanity, our ancestors lived in small intimate groups. Survival was their purpose and they did it with little more than knapped stone, sticks and the stubborn grit found in the best of our species.
They hunted in tight, well organized bands. Every hunt taught the members to believe in each other and believe in the group. The hunting party was something larger than the individual, a living thing of clear purpose, an agent of greater good. Every member felt a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose and the strength of the whole. And every member came to trust, respect and love the friends forged at their side.
Those who failed to bond, failed to eat and failed to pass on their genes.
We long for a trusted band of friends and we long for purpose. Those needs are built into us through long ages of struggle and linger still like smoldering coals.
When we are called to a common task and form our bands of brothers, the old fires awaken. That need is so deep, the effect so powerful, that even in the trauma of war we come alive.
Some old men look back on what they were, longing for youth and strength. Others look back longing for a greater strength, a clarity of purpose. They still feel the coals, smoldering deep. They miss the fire.
The bonds of the hammer-forged band last a lifetime. The band is burned into your soul. I’ve seen it in the eyes of those who still love their brothers, spent and broken. And I’ve seen it in those who’ve moved on and know their lives have dimmed to shadows and distant memories.
I’ll never forget Mr. McKeiver. I’ve thought often about the fire in his eyes and that tight band of spent old men – glorious still.
The course and obligations of our lives carry us away from the fronts of conflict and the edge of advancements. We become an audience to the heroes dragging humanity forward one painful step at a time. We accept the myth that we are helpless, too old, too young or unready to fan the flames of purpose and burn.
You feel the need burning in your belly. Don’t wait to be called. Look up from the quiet safety of your life and join in purpose. It can be hopeless and you don’t have to know it’s right, you only need to commit to something great. Meaning, friendship, and even glory wait to etch your soul.
You need the fire and you need your band.