I have been thinking lately about that statement. No matter how you finish it off, it somehow sounds wrong, doesn’t it? So why do we keep repeating it?
The only way, I think, that statement makes any sense, is if it ends in this way:
Some of my best friends are no longer here, and I miss them.
Some of us are separated only geographically, some of us by temperament. Other dear friends have moved on to other planes of existence. Many of my former acquaintances are no longer a part of my normal life.
I do not get to laugh with them or sing sad songs with them. I do not have a chance to trade insults or to explore ideas or to share a meal or lift a glass in toast with them. I miss that. I also miss the spice and variety of different viewpoints, different backgrounds, differing perspectives. And, because of the way my mind works, thinking about old friends led to thinking about old wars, and about old songs. That seems appropriate, in an odd sort of way, because today marks the anniversary of Israel’s independence, and Memorial Day is not long off.
Over a lifetime we all encounter all sorts of people. With some, there is an immediate connection. Others move on quickly; there is no common bond. But one of the characters I encountered during my years in Europe was a British Army sergeant with a glorious Irish voice and a full repertoire of old wartime ditties. Some of them were raw enough to make me blush. Some were haunting, some were fit for long marches; others were meant for the parade field and “Pass in Review” occasions. He also sang ballads and the classic hymns so loved by old ladies and 10-year-olds alike. “Paddy” sang them all, repeatedly and well, much to the delight of anyone within hearing range.
I know that he is no longer around; he seemed old (and weathered) even when I knew him. But I have not forgotten him. Especially now, with observances related to past wars close and pervasive, I think of him and his songs.
“Bless ’em All” comes to mind. An irreverent military tune, as many were, this particular one has been sung by many nationalities through many wars. It has also been popularized in numerous movies and has some ever so “politically incorrect” versions, in addition to the more familiar words. Or maybe the original version, written by Welsh songwriter Fred Godfrey is the lesser-known version after all.
Anyway, I remember it as it was performed in a service club in Paris, loudly and with great feeling, by an Irishman who wanted to be anyplace but where he was. Accompanied by an off-key chorus and punctuated by cheers and applause from other soldiers and sailors of a dozen different nationalities, it was a celebration of the kind of friendships that don’t often exist. Some of those present didn’t know the words, but they all got the point. It was just prior to the move of NATO and SHAPE Headquarters from France to Belgium. It was a melancholy moment.
I remember it well. It was one of the last times I saw this group of characters together. I still think of them. They were — we all were — players in a performance that has not been staged again in almost 50 years.
Bless ’em all. Indeed.