I think this is the greatest generation any society has ever produced. At a time in their lives when their days should have been filled with the rewards of starting careers and families, their nights filled with love and innocent adventure, this generation was fighting for survival ─ theirs and the world’s. — Tom Brokaw
The flag-draped coffin rested before us as we walked into the small Lutheran church in rural northwestern Minnesota.
I looked at 93-year-old Walter Scheffler. I thought of the man I had known — not well — for the past four years. Walter was a quiet man with bright eyes and a big smile. Since the death of Violet, his wife of 53 years, in 2002, Walter continued to live on the farm — active and engaged — until he was 91 years old.
I noticed a blue cord on Walter’s right arm as I thought about his life.
Walter lived close to the land: born on the family farm, he attended a one-room school and nurtured the earth for a lifetime; he tilled the soil and fed his family and the world.
Walter wove his daily routines of work, family, church, leisure, and community together to form an interconnected life of wholeness and balance. He intertwined his days with the land, the weather, and the seasons. He worked the fertile earth, fished the blue lakes, and hunted the deep forests of Minnesota. He lived his life in a dynamic and symbiotic relationship with people, animals, and nature. Birth, growth, and death were accepted as part of the natural cycle of a spiritual life. Meaning and purpose came naturally.
Life on the farm was interrupted from 1941-45 when Walter served his country in World War II. An army infantryman, he was a rifleman in California; the Aleutian Islands; Kodiak, Alaska; Germany; the Ardennes Mountains; and Central Europe. He experienced and then lived with the horrors of war. He was a good soldier — courageous and honorable.
I looked at Walter a final time and whispered “God bless you.” We sat with family at the back of the church. The church hushed and the dozen or so honorary pallbearers marched to the front pews. These veterans — some old, some middle-aged, from wars long ago and far away — represented the grandeur of the human spirit. Their time as a generation was coming to an end; their work was almost done. I felt a deep respect for their nobility and steadfastness to one of their own.
A young man rose and walked to the lectern. He stood tall and spoke from his heart:
The Lord God has created all people for a purpose. We are created in His image to glorify and honor Him. We have the capacity to love and to hate, to hurt and to rejoice. We have it in us to be whatever we put our minds too.
However, throughout history there have been times where men were defined by their actions within the era in which they lived. In my heart, I believe that men were still defined in the context of our heavenly father.
That being said let me speak of a certain era where men were defined by their actions. Their heart and their character were expressions of the man that God had shaped and called them to be. WWII was such an era.
For the first time in our history, the Selective Service was put into action. Halfway through the war the age of service was dropped from 21 to 18. Our brave fathers, husbands, sons, and friends were called to fight in a foreign land against a tyrant that cared nothing for God, His people, or His creation.
Against a tyrant that was bent on world domination, these are men [who] fought for what they knew to be right. Men who lived and fought for the honor and character that was instilled into their life.
Grandpa was such a man. If you spent enough time with him you may have been privileged to hear one of his countless stories from his time overseas during WWII. He was one of millions of brave soldiers that the United States called into service.
They didn’t ask to be a part of this war, but their country called them and they responded with honor and character. They rallied to the greater good, shed their blood, gave their lives, and defended our freedoms from tyranny.
Grandpa served in a time when the gallant distinction of infantry, and what they bring to a battlefield, was not fully honored.
General Washington selected the color blue to distinguish his tough and resolute infantry in the Continental Army from other types of soldiers. General Lafayette chose a light blue color to outfit his American Infantry Corps. For the next 120 years, the official infantry color alternated between blue and white until 1904 when the army officially adopted what we now know as “Infantry Blue.”
In 1951, the army leadership sought to encourage and recognize foot soldiers [who] were bravely fighting intense battles in Korea. They soon adopted the Infantry Blue Cord. This cord would only be worn by fully qualified infantrymen and would announce for all to see that these men would be on the front line when our nation was at war.
I had the honor of serving our great nation as one of those honored and distinguished infantrymen. I was awarded the coveted Infantry Blue Cord. I then served out my time in the military burying our honored dead at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.
It is with a heavy heart and great honor that my coveted blue cord is now placed on a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather in recognition of the service he provided, the man he was, the life he lived, the man that God called him to be, and the man that is now enlisted in the heavenly ranks.
I love you Grandpa. Thank you for the brief time I had with you, and all the lives you impacted. I look forward to the day when I will see you again, and stand with you in the ranks of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Some wept openly — others silently — at this young man’s fire, idealism, and reverence for his wife’s grandfather. I looked at a frail old man seated in front of me. Tears wet his face.
We drove as a pilgrimage to the cemetery in the country. We gathered under the canopy that sheltered the coffin of the humble man we honored. The cold wind blew and snowflakes dotted the gray land and forlorn trees prepared by fall for the sleep of winter. We huddled close together and shivered from the frigid breath of nature as tears became ice on our numb cheeks.
The minister gave his final blessing, and we said the Lord’s Prayer together in voices that trembled.
The young man who spoke at the church, a former Army Ranger, folded the American flag — slowly and with precision. He stepped forward and pivoted to face Walter’s son Rodney, flanked by sister Beverly and brother Richard. Walter’s seven grandchildren wept openly at the power and deep dignity of the moment.
The proud infantryman whispered: “Rodney, it is truly an honor and a privilege to be able to present this flag to you in recognition of grandpa’s dedicated and faithful service.” He saluted smart and strong. Rodney, eyes glistening, returned the tribute.
The honor guard of old men stood behind us on the boundary of the cemetery and a cornfield. They pointed the muzzles of their rifles over Walter’s casket and fired a 3-volley salute. A trumpeter blew taps.
Walter returned to the earth he loved:
He was bound to the land from the day of his birth
His roots anchored deep in the fertile earth
Nurtured, sustained, by the soil he grew
And his life, like his furrows, ran straight and true.
In faith, each spring, he planted the seeds
In hope, to reap his family’s needs
With patience, he waited for the harvest to come
To gather the fruits of his labor home,
Ever turning seasons, the years sped past
Til the final harvest came at last.
Then claimed anew by beloved sod
He was gathered home to be with God.
(Final Harvest by Barbara W. Weber)
If we have consciousness after death, I am certain Walter was surprised and honored to the depths of his soul by the love and devotion his durable life of dignity and decency called forth in those who loved him.
At the end of the movie “Saving Private Ryan” an aged Ryan visited the grave of the soldier played by Tom Hanks, who had saved him. Ryan was an average man who worked, raised a family, and lived an everyday life. He knelt at the grave and said with great emotion to his wife: “Tell me I’m a good man. Tell me I’ve led a good life.”
Daughter Beverly answered Ryan’s questions for Walter: “He provided for us, protected us and cared for us. I’m glad God sent him to be our Dad.”
We salute you Walter Scheffler.
Excerpted from Learning to Live: Essays on Life & Leadership