Some thoughts on D-Day

When I pray my Rosary tonight I’ll be using this rosary.  

Photo by Samra Jones Bufkins

I have many rosaries, from all over the world and representing different milestones in my spiritual journey. All are special. This one is extra special because it’s a paratrooper’s rosary, made from nylon parachute cord. And it was made for me by a World War II veteran who made eight combat jumps behind enemy lines, including D-Day. He also fought with the infantry in the Battle of the Bulge.

The veteran was Brother Christopher Danz, a monk at Assumption Abbey, the Trappist monastery near Ava, Missouri, where my brother was a novice with the order in the mid-90s. Brother Chris was a tall, slender, dark-haired man of few words and broad smiles. If I can find a picture I’ll scan it and post it.

Sunday afternoons are the monks’ time off for rest and relaxation after a long week of work and prayer. Typically they awaken at 3:15 a.m. for the office of Vigils, followed by Mass, a day of scripture study, meditation, community prayer, and work. (They support themselves by baking and selling excellent fruitcakes.) Some monks work in the gardens, the kitchen, or the guest house, and they are mainly in silence while at work. Over a two week period they will sing all 150 Psalms.

When I’d visit the monastery they would come to the guest house to hang out and socialize after Sunday lunch, and Brother Chris always brought his guitar and harmonicas. We’d sing hymns, Woody Guthrie songs and what Chris called “hillbilly music.” The other monks would all tease my brother with the question “Brother Mike, why can’t you sing like your sister?” During one visit, Chris gave me one of his harmonicas after trying to teach me how to play it. I never mastered it, and it’s now in the safe keeping of Barry Landry, who sometimes plays it in our church choir.

Brother Chris didn’t talk about the war much–I learned about his accomplishments from the other monks. It was obvious to all that the war had a terrible impact on him. We knew he lied about his age to enlist at 16 or 17, and had just turned 19 when the Allies invaded Europe. When the war was over and he was discharged from the Army he immediately entered the monastic life. He had been at Assumption Abbey from the beginning, and spent his entire adult life after leaving the Army in prayer and meditation.

Image from Our Catholic Prayers

Chris kept the horrors of war to himself, but was known for his devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows. Undoubtedly seeing so many young men struck down in battle caused him to identify with our Lord’s blessed mother, who had to watch her son die horribly on the cross. She heard the Prophecy of Simeon (Luke 2: 34, 35) and personally witnessed her son’s passion and death. Mothers of WWII soldiers had to wait for news via radio, newspaper and newsreel. The really bad news came by telegram.

Brother Christopher’s answering the call to a life of silence, prayer and work in community with other monks was also probably reparation and penance for whatever he had to do to survive the hell of the battlefield. PTSD and survivor guilt were real but undiagnosed traumas of WWII veterans, and some coped better than others. Chris coped through a life of sacrifice and prayer.

While the monks were pretty aware of what was going on in the world–they had one computer with an Internet connection, and subscribed to several daily newspapers in order to know what and whom to pray for–most, especially Brother Chris, really had no idea about popular culture. So on one visit, while sitting in rocking chairs on the guest house patio, I told the monks about former President Bush’s parachute jump to celebrate his 75th birthday.

Chris was flabbergasted. “Why would anybody jump out of a plane if they didn’t have to?” (A question I often ask myself.) My brother (a former Marine aviator) and I explained about new parachutes, and the ability to steer them. Pointing to the yard in front of the monastery Mike said “Those jumpers are so good they could land right out there.” Chris was amazed. We explained that President Bush did a tandem jump, strapped to an expert jumper, and Chris started to get interested. The Abbot jokingly suggested they plan such a jump for the monastery’s July 4 picnic, to which they invite the whole community. I could tell Chris was fascinated by the idea of jumping out of a plane for fun, without getting shot at, and with a pretty decent idea about where he was going to land. But that was as close as we came to getting him to talk about the war.
I think about Brother Christopher often. He passed away a few years back, and is now at peace after a life of keeping the pains of his war experience between him and God. 
Photo by Samra Jones Bufkins

Watching the many documentaries and stories about today’s 70th anniversary of D-Day prompted me to pull out a few pieces of war-time memorabilia.

Daddy didn’t see combat during WWII–he was injured during aviation cadet training, developed osteomyelitis in his foot, and spent more than three months at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio as a guinea pig for a new drug, penicillin. Once he regained his health he spent the rest of the war as a B-29 mechanic based in Tucson.

Daddy had this Army-issued pocket-sized New Testament, which was presented to every Christian soldier in those days. (This one was printed by John C. Winston Co.) Looking at it and holding it I can’t help but think every soldier storming the beaches of Normandy probably had one in his pocket.

Photo by Samra Jones Bufkins

We also have my father-in-law’s Army/Navy Hymnal  (Remember, the Air Force as we know it was part of the Army until 1947, and the Marines are part of the Navy).  In addition to hymns it has sections of prayers labeled Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish, with selected scriptures and Psalms. It’s fragile, but I love looking through it. I can visualize chaplains blessing the troops before going into battle, and perhaps the soldiers singing familiar hymns for comfort before the invasion.

Last but not least among my dad’s religious memorabilia is a small crucifix, origin unknown. It’s made of unknown metal with inlaid wood, and the Body of Christ is brass. My dad didn’t become Catholic until about 1960, but Mom said he always treasured that crucifix, carrying it with him in a B-29 during combat missions over Korea.  She couldn’t recall who gave it to him, and he never talked about it.

My dad’s war experiences are nowhere near as dramatic as those of the brave men who stormed the beaches of Normandy or battled on the sands of Iwo Jima. But holding these remnants of his past bring me closer to him and to all those of the Greatest Generation who went before us and to whom we owe an enormous debt of gratitude.

Freedom isn’t free. Bless the souls of all who paid the ultimate price for our freedom.

Veteran William Spriggs, 89, of the 83rd Infantry Division, who took part in the invasion of Normandy, in the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Greatest Generation just lost another great character

My husband’s dad died this morning. It wasn’t completely unexpected—he fell and fractured his pelvis a couple of weeks ago, starting that downhill slide that so many old folks face when they get frail and wobbly. So in some ways, to have him relieved of his suffering in fairly short order is a small comfort, as other family members have lingered on in pain for months.

Russell L. Bufkins was born in Boonville, Indiana January 3, 1920. It’s the same town my dad was born in 5 years earlier—in fact the families knew each other and it was on our first date that Bill and I discovered our common roots in a small coal-mining town on the Ohio River. My dad and Russ’s older brother had many escapades in their youth, and my dad even had pictures to prove it.

Pop, as we knew him, was the only one of the 6 kids to go to college—he earned a master’s degree in Journalism at Indiana University, and worked as a radio newsman before being called up for WWII. The family name was actually Bufkin, but when the Navy misspells your name, that’s what it becomes for life.

Assigned to a minesweeper in San Francisco Bay, Pop learned he suffered from debilitating seasickness, and begged for shore duty of any kind. That’s what launched his storied career as a Navy Public Affairs officer.

He spent a good part of the war at Ulithi Atoll, the south Pacific staging ground for the invasion of Japan. There he met legendary journalist Ernie Pyle, played tennis with Bobby Riggs as part of a USO tour, was given a photo of the Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi signed by the photographer Joe Rosenthal, and saved a late night dinner party with a British Admiral by singing Gilbert and Sullivan songs with the Admiral during a storm. Yes, he was quite a character.

In the 1950’s he was the chief PAO at NATO command in Naples, Italy, where he reluctantly staged a fake press conference because a visiting Admiral insisted on it. Knowing there was no news, he filled the room with coached ringers, and more or less bribed an AP correspondent friend to show up. Turns out the Admiral had a major announcement, the AP guy got a huge scoop on the Rome-based press, and Pop was a friend for life.

He did a couple of stints at the Pentagon, one working for Admiral John S. McCain Jr., whom he also coached in tennis. From the stories, the good Admiral wasn’t too easy to coach, especially by a lower-ranking officer. Pop also ran the Navy Book and Magazine office, and knew, or drank with, all the great journalists, screenwriters and authors of that day. His list of media contacts reads like a Who’s Who of the National Press Club in the 1950’s and ‘60’s.

After retiring from the Navy, Pop became national PR Director for the Boy Scouts of America, and helped shepherd their relocation to Irving, Tx in 1979. If you think the Navy is full of PR war stories, you should hear about the Boy Scouts.

Among his accomplishments with the Scouts was creation of the famous ad campaign with distinguished former Boy Scouts—people like President Jerry Ford, baseball great Hank Aaron, and Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart. Family legend has it that the Boy Scout shirt provided for Pres. Ford didn’t fit, so Pop gave him his, which he then wore home. So I guess you can say Pop gave the shirt off his back to the President!

His years with the Navy and the Boy Scouts took him all over the world, with some interesting adventure stories and many treasures brought home to keep the memories strong.

In the early ‘80s he retired and spent his time researching the family genealogy, including visiting the Bufkin family ancestral estate in County Kent, England. Pretty much everyone named “Bufkin” in the U.S. is decended from that clan. Unfortunately, he never compiled all his research, so that’s something for Bill and me to do in the future.

He ran the Denton Tennis Association for years, was an avid bridge player, and volunteered as coordinator of the book sale at the Denton Library—this resulting in many, many books finding their way home. He enjoyed the concerts, recitals and operas put on by the music school at UNT, and never passed a garage sale without stopping and bringing home some “treasure.”

He was a character, like so many of his generation. Good solid people who won the big war and worked to keep the free world free. He was a great storyteller, and lived a life worth telling.

He joins in heaven his firstborn, Dorothy, who died of leukemia at age 6, and his wife Dorothy Clewlow Bufkins. Russ is survived by his sons Bill and Jim, both of Denton, his younger sister Ruth, many friends and the dog and cats who loved him and made his last months happier and warmer.