Weary was as new to war as Billy. He was a replacement, too. As a part of a gun crew, he had helped to fire one shot in anger--from a 57-millimeter antitank gun. The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the zipper on the fly of God Almighty. The gun lapped up snow and vegetation with a blowtorch thirty feet long. The flame left a black arrow on the ground, showing the Germans exactly where the gun was hidden. The shot was a miss.
What had been missed was a Tiger tank. It swiveled its 88-milimeter snout around sniffingly, saw the arrow on the ground. It fired. It killed everybody on the gun crew but Weary. So it goes.
Roland Weary is just as naive and frightened as Billy Pilgrim. Roland just hides it better. Puts on a John Wayne mask and pretends he's a cowboy in green. Of course, Billy, being just as naive and frightened, buys Roland's act. But they're both kids, and they're both staring down the barrel of a gun.
Roland and Billy aren't much older than the students I teach at the university, and those students all enter my classroom wide-eyed and nervous, pretending that they understand the ways of the world already. I see it at the beginning of every semester. My job is to somehow strip away the masks they're wearing and teach them a little about life.
This afternoon, I received an e-mail that one of the students at the university--a 19-year-old sophomore, let's call him Brett--died last Friday night in his dorm room. Unexpectedly. I am not going to speculate about the cause of his death. In the e-mail, there was a link to the website of the funeral home. I clicked on the link, and there was Brett's picture.
He was in jeans and a long-sleeved tee shirt. His face looked so young, like he was trying to be an adult, but didn't have the experience to back it up. He was a Billy Pilgrim or Roland Weary. Maybe a little scared. Maybe a little excited. And full of expectation about the future.
I sat and stared at that picture for a good five minutes, filling up with sadness. I never had Brett in a class. I may have walked by him during the year-and-a-half that he was a student at the university, and he probably blended in with all the other Billys and Rolands on campus. And, now, he is gone.
In about an hour, I have to go teach a classroom filled with young people. I am going to try to keep Brett's face in my mind's eye. In the last few days, I've been swept up in the pessimism of the recent presidential inauguration. Tonight, I am going to try to kindle a little hope for the future. I'll do it for Brett.
This evening, Saint Marty is grateful for his students, for the hope they carry around in their backpacks.