Shifty Powers died last month. There’s no better way to put it. No, strike that. There’s no easier way to put it.
I was on the road last week. It was a particularly difficult trip, fraught with bad weather from Chicago going east, something this Californian is not equipped to deal with on a regular basis. The return flight was peppered with mechanical problems, missed connections, and other frustrations. I was hoping to make it back, and bask in all this glorious California sunshine that makes life with the imminent collapse of the entire state infrastructure tolerable.
Instead, I came home to an email that’s been making its way around the Internet. Some of you may already have seen it. I believe it was written by Joe Galloway – he, of We Were Soldiers, 1st Cav/Ia Drang notoriety – and very eloquently done.
It was Shifty Powers’ memoriam.
For the first time in a long time, I’m hard pressed to come up with something to add to the volumes of testimonials that are currently making their way through cyberspace. You see, Shifty Powers was caught up in the tidal wave of history. He was also a soldier in a crusade against evil when the entire world was in danger of falling into another dark age. He was a brother paratrooper, and since the Airborne community is a close-knit one, I knew him by reputation long before I ever made his acquaintance. But more than that, the one designation I hold most dear is that Shifty Powers was my friend.
I finally met him face-to-face in Normandy in June 2004 for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings. An account of that experience is related in detail in Saving Private Weinmann. This commentary is not an advertisement for that one, merely to familiarize those who do not know the details of that momentous event, and to explain my passion for the greatest generation.
So, how do I eulogize the passing of a friend? Where do I begin?
If there was one thing I had to pick from the many outstanding qualities of Shifty Powers, it would be his humility. For all his wartime accomplishments, he was the epitome of the salt of the earth. Were any of us to meet him without his connection to the Band of Brothers paratroopers – a virtual impossibility since the release of the mini-series in 2001 – we would be hard-pressed to connect him to any of those events.
It’s a fading distinction in 21st century America, where an army of exhibitionists, all grimly determined to elbow each other out of the way to gain their fifteen minutes of fame, will stop at nothing in its pursuit. We live in a country where he who shouts the loudest and the longest gets the attention. And whoever wins the endurance race of vulgarity and verbosity is often the one taken seriously.
Shifty Powers sat in the back of the room – often smoking a cigarette, usually with a smile on his face – and took it all in. He didn’t miss a thing. And he didn’t have to pound his chest.
Shifty Powers stared into the black hole of human destruction. He witnessed the worst humanity could muster with the full force of 20th century industrialized warfare at its disposal, and was not poisoned by it. He emerged from his wartime experience with his soul, his character and his integrity intact. He never lost his faith. This is not to say he came home unaffected. But whatever scars he carried with him he kept to himself. In that, he was typical of his generation.
By most accounts, Shifty was diagnosed with cancer – I know not which variety – last June (2008). He died last month, June 17, 2009 if memory serves. Was it lung cancer? Possibly. I remember his singular delight during our excursion into history, when we all discovered that the smoking Nazis had not yet invaded Europe. You could smoke everywhere. And Shifty did. I never saw him without a cigarette at the ready. Did it finally take its toll? Who knows? And what does it matter now?
There is a fallacy, I think, when it comes to the death of the elderly. Just because they’ve lived to a ripe old age, somehow we believe they are somehow more reconciled to death than the rest of us. I’ve fallen into this mindset myself. I think perhaps we’re wrong to see death in such a light.
Let’s face it, our outlook on life doesn’t change much as we age. We don’t really think that differently as we grow older. Oh, we don’t move quite as fast as before. And we get more impatient with the frustrations of life, possibly because we’ve been dealing with them for so long that we’re looking forward to a little relief. But, except for a few aches and pains, do we somehow become resigned to leaving this life just because we’ve lived out allotted three score and ten and then some? Somehow, I don’t think so.
Maybe we get up one morning with creaking bones, tired from the broken sleep that comes to us when we age. We look at the calendar and wonder where the years went. When did it get to be 2009, we wonder? We interact with the 40-somethings of the world and marvel at how young they are, at the same time remembering with a chuckle how old we thought we were at that age.
But mostly this shift in perception comes from my recollection of Shifty Powers and what a grand time he had living life. No, I’m not suggesting he was some ageing, rompin’, stompin’, foul-mouthed airborne hellraiser. But he had a really good time of it from what I could see. He enjoyed life, the utter and total joy of it. I doubt he went easily. I don’t think he was finished with it, if he had a say-so in the matter. Sadly, he didn’t. It’s not our call when it comes to closing time.
As for the significance of his passing, I think that would be obvious. His was the last generation that uniformly believed in the goodness of America. Right or wrong, he loved this country, warts and all. There was no question that it was worth defending. And there was no thought to abandoning his responsibility to bear that burden, even it meant never coming home.
There are those among us who would celebrate his passing, but for all the wrong reasons. They would claim that the ethnocentricity of Americans is a tradition that the years have passed by. They would further assert that men like Shifty Powers have become archaic – antiquated holdovers whose singular vision of the nobility of America in spite of its flaws has long-since outlived its value and is well-disposed of in the new global utopia of an America not so primus inter pares.
I would suggest to these brave new visionaries to count the cost of what was lost and get back to me on that. Either that, or walk the grounds of Auschwitz or Dachau and then opine at length about the inherent nobility of man.
So, here’s to Shifty Powers – a man who made a difference when it counted the most. God’s speed, my friend. I’ve no doubt that we’ll meet up again when we’ve “all crossed over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees,” to quote Stonewall Jackson. Shifty Powers has made his last jump. I’m certain that he didn’t freeze in the door. And I’m sure he landed on his feet.
“Well done, my good and faithful servant . . . Enter into the joy of your lord.” – Matthew 25:21.