Faith Works 11-9-13
A promise to keep
"So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever." (Joshua 4:7, ESV)
Most people who are familiar with the concept of a "tontine" know it from a M*A*S*H re-run, when Col. Potter gets a package that contains a bottle of cognac which turns him into a foul humor. Over the course of the episode, it comes out that of a group of World War I veterans, who had purchased this bottle while on a final leave together, Potter was the last survivor, and the deal, the idea of a tontine is that everyone pitches in, and the last one gets the now well-aged result, with the promise to drink a toast to those who have gone before.
There is a very special tontine being closed out today in Dayton, Ohio. The last surviving members of the Doolittle Raiders, are gathering there. Of those who flew out of the darkest early days after Pearl Harbor to bomb Tokyo, eighty in number off the flight deck , seven died in the aftermath of the mission, thirteen more during the remainder of World War II. The now sixty Raiders began after the war regular reunions, and in 1959 the city of Tucson, Arizona presented them with a unique gift and honor.
It was a set of eighty silver goblets, each with a name, on one side right-side up, on the other side upside-down, and a case to hold them. Each year since, there has been a ceremony to turn over the goblets of the men who died since the last gathering, joining the twenty that were already overturned.
At the center of the case is a bottle of fine brandy, bottled in 1896, the year of Col. Doolittle's birth. The idea was originally that at the last reunion, the last two survivors would open the bottle, and drink to the memory of their fellow airmen.
For many years, the Doolittle Raiders' tontine case was held at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs; not long ago, it was moved to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base here in Ohio. Nestled under the wing of a B-25, like the sixteen they flew from the deck of the USS Hornet to Tokyo and on to China, some visitors pause briefly and move on puzzled at this wide arrangement of silver cups oddly arranged, and others stand there, head bowed, for quite some time.
Over the years, in regular visits to this museum, I had watched the number of upright goblets dwindle. The last time I was there, it was five of the 80, today it is four.
The annual tradition had become more occasional, and the decision was made by the three of the remaining four who could travel to have a formal "Last Reunion" at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where they had trained in 1942 for their mission. Those three also decided to set a date, which is now here, to go to Dayton, and open the bottle, and close out the tontine together, honoring all their fellows.
Dick Cole, Robert Hite, Edward Saylor, and David Thatcher. They are the last, all in their nineties, and Lt. Col. Hite probably will not be present. Lt. Col. Cole was co-pilot with Doolittle, and is a native of Dayton, closing a circle in another way as well.
A toast, a prayer, a memorial stone, a memory. They are each enduring acts in their own right, and all are vulnerable in human terms. The bottle will empty, the prayers are spoken and drift away in the breeze; stones can erode and memories always do. We treasure our own ways to honor and remember, with roadside shrines and car window stickers, let alone granite in cemeteries or on the National Mall in Washington, even as we understand they have a lifespan of their own.
Lincoln spoke in his First Inaugural of "The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave" anchoring them to hearts & hearthstones. But he closed by reminding his hearers of "the better angels of our nature," knowing that a purely earthly sense of remembrance is frail as fog, needing a more solid connection to hold them in place.
May God's presence enfold and anchor and bless all the memories and hopes and thankfulness lifted up with those last three goblets, today in Dayton.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; tell him about a memorial important to you at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.