My husband and his whole family stood vigil by a hospice bedside last week. It was an honor guard for a great man as he stepped out of this life and into another.
My father-in-law was a simple man, yet his life taught some profound lessons. A man a generation older than my own father, but whose eyes had a permanently youthful sparkle. A man who volunteered for World War II, yet was a man of peace. A man born on a poor farm and who raised four boys on a small salary, but was one of the richest men I knew.
Here are three of the main lessons on life I learned from Bill Feldhahn, that we all need to be reminded of today:
Lesson #1: Courage is a Choice
Bill Feldhahn was an ordinary young American growing up in extraordinary times. As we were losing hundreds of thousands of young men and women in the European and Pacific theatres, he was working the family farm. So he was safe from the draft with a farm deferment. But his older sister’s husband was not. In 1944, when his brother-in-law was drafted, Bill took his place. He convinced his sister’s husband to stay home with her and their new baby. He traded his farm deferment for one of the most dangerous job in the flying forces: a tail gunner.
Years later, I asked my father-in-law how he had found the courage to volunteer during the most dangerous period of the war. Looking surprised at the question, he smiled and shrugged. It wasn’t courage, he told me, “It was just a choice. That’s what you do for family.”
It doesn’t matter that you’re afraid, he was saying. What matters is stepping up and doing what you know you should, in spite of your fear.
Today, far beyond the boundaries of war and military service, that lesson applies every day. I see it as my 14-year-old son comes forward to confess that he broke an important rule, knowing he will have some significant consequences. I see as a man steps up and marries the mother of his child, choosing the path of honor. I see it in a woman I know who quit a job she loved in order to stay home to care for a special-needs daughter.