A holiday still worth saluting

Sixty-six years ago this autumn, Hal Mayforth was a sergeant with the U.S. 4th Armored Division, fighting his way through France. He was part of a platoon that would eat Thanksgiving dinner that month in a barnyard rank with manure and lined with coffins. According to a letter he wrote his parents at the time, however, it actually was a pretty good meal: “Everyone in the troop is presently so stuffed with turkey, cranberries, potatoes, carrots, peas, applesauce and pineapples that the third army will be unable to clock off its daily five kilometers.”

Before joining the Army, Mayforth had grown up in Burlington and played football at the University of Vermont. He will turn 90 this coming February. A widower, he lives now with his daughter in Bristol.

Mayforth doesn’t consider himself a hero. Few soldiers do. But the reality is that he was a first-rate scout, and continued in that role even while acting as a platoon leader. He fought for eight-and-a-half months — including the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 — until, on March 1, 1945, he was shot in his right thigh and forearm while covering his platoon as they fell back across a meadow under fire.

“Mayforth was our Ben Johnson,” wrote John DiBattista in his World War II memoir, “The Long Road,” meaning that Mayforth was like the scouts in “those old John Wayne cavalry movies.” Mayforth, DiBattista recalled, would halt the column, survey tracks in the dirt or mud road, and determine right away whether they were from an armored car, a tank, or merely a Volkswagen.

Thursday is Veterans Day: The holiday always falls on the 11th, because the armistice for the First World War went into effect at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918: 11-11-11. For most of my life, we haven’t viewed the day with the respect that President Wilson imagined we would when he proclaimed the first Armistice Day nearly a century ago. There are a variety of reasons for that, but the primary ones are the scars wrought on the national psyche by the Vietnam War.

History is cyclical, however, and my sense is that once again we are approaching the work of our veterans with the reverence it deserves. First of all, we are realizing that the Greatest Generation — men and women such as Hal Mayforth — is growing smaller. Most veterans of World War II are on the far side of 84. We know our time with them is short.

Second, there are the younger veterans who served in two wars in Iraq in the last generation and are now fighting the Taliban in places in Afghanistan that most of us can name but seldom pinpoint on a map (Exhibit A: Kandahar). Since we have been fighting in Afghanistan for nine years this autumn, the odds are good that most of us know someone who has been there — or, tragically, someone who died there. There is also a moral authority to our work in Afghanistan that has reassured us all: We are building schools in the country and ensuring that girls can attend. We are trying to make certain that soccer on the Sabbath is not a capital offense. In September, this newspaper’s Sam Hemingway and Ryan Mercer showed us exactly that — and more.

And right here at home, next month on West Canal Street in Winooski, the Committee on Temporary Shelter will have finished construction on its apartment complex for Vermont veterans. “We want to make sure that Vermont’s veterans are honored for their service — that they have the housing and support they need to make the difficult transition back home,” COTS Executive Director Rita Markley says.

Consequently, this Thursday I will say a prayer for our veterans right now overseas. And when I am eating my cranberries and Tofurky on Thanksgiving, I will be thankful that 66 years ago a guy like Hal Mayforth was willing to celebrate his Thanksgiving in a barnyard in northern France.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on November 7, 2010.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.