An Encounter with a very special C.O.

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‘I hate war’

These words on one of the walls of the Roosevelt memorial in Washington leap out at me.  I read many more quotes referring to peace on this and the other nearby memorials.  And yet?

War doesn’t seem to have diminished since those quotes were uttered. The high-flown words of peace don’t seem to have been translated into action.

20 years after Roosevelt, the US found itself embroiled in the Vietnam War, while simultaneously working towards putting a man on the moon. They succeeded in the latter but failed in the former.

How can it be possible for a nation to send three men all the way to the moon and back, and yet not be able to find peaceful solutions to international disputes?

These musings roll around inside my head as I climb back into Bill’s Honda on Easter Monday. (Although this is a bank holiday in the UK, it’s not a public holiday here). This time we have Jake on board too, so we’re all crammed in – ‘three men in a Honda’ – with our suitcases and the six crates for another long jaunt, out to Ohio now, to Bluffton University.

Bluffton is Jake’s alma mater. He is looking forward to seeing people he hasn’t seen in the eight years since he graduated.

I am NOT looking forward, however, to my third dose of ‘flat long very long dull flat dull’ – (AKA everyone’s favourite turnpike – the Ohio…)

Jake will be staying with his mother, who lives not far from there. Bill and I however, are the guests of Lawrence and Louise, whose house stands alone in the university’s ‘nature preserve’.

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At home in the nature preserve

It is OLD – by American standards. Built in 1854 by Swiss Mennonite settlers, and made of beautiful timbers and thick earthen walls. Outside in the surrounding fields I spot half a dozen deer.

The wind shakes the house in the night and whistles through cracks in the walls. This is tornado country, I have been warned.

‘And erm, what time of year do they tend to appear?’ I ask, trying not to seem too concerned.

‘Late spring and early fall. Usually.’

Usually. Okay. I start noticing tornado shelters wherever we go, and make a mental note of their location.

‘If you can’t find a shelter,’ someone says, ‘The safest thing to do is to get as low as possible – in a ditch, say. Or under a bridge is good.’

‘Righto. But there’s no chance of one now in early spring?’ I ask, aware I’m not sounding quite as unconcerned as I’d hoped.

‘No. Not usually.’

Oh well. Fingers crossed, then.

Next morning, the three of us present a forum on campus, on the subject of conscientious objection from WW1 to the present day.

Then, after lunch with the faculty, I am whisked off to give, at short notice, a class on ‘theatre for social change.’

Hmm. Right. Okay. I muse to myself and then to the class whether theatre can change anything, socially or otherwise. Or whether it can only influence?
Big questions. I hope my play, at least, will influence hearts and minds in however modest a way. Whether it would change the minds of an audience made up of the military…? Well, if I ever have such an audience I’ll let you know.

At the evening performance, when I come out a few minutes beforehand, the first dozen or so rows have just a handful of people in them. But way at the back are scores of students. I call out and plead with them to come down and fill up the front – but they appear not to hear me.

I then boom out my plea in a strong projected baritone. Maybe half a dozen reluctantly get up and move a couple of rows further forward. Afterwards, most of the adults stay for the Q and A, while most of the students scarper. It seems that coming to see the play will earn them a credit – so once it’s over they’re off.

But I think it goes well. And two students that do stay behind ask searching questions – one of them having a brother in the military.

Next morning I visit the Lion and Lamb Peace Arts Centre on campus, run by Louise, our host. It’s a wonderful resource for young people, with great books, picture books for younger children, inspiring posters, images, sculptures – and of course, a cuddly lion with a lamb sat on its back.

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Later, at Archbold, an historic village an hour or two’s drive away and the location for our next performance, I have the most depressing meal of the tour – half baked bits of string-like stuff masquerading as fettuccine Alfredo. (Not sure what Alfred had to do with it – though he did burn the cakes, didn’t he? King Alfred, that is.)

My only relief is that it’s not the standard huge American-size portion – it’s positively stingy.

The evening show in Archbold Mennonite Church is played to 160 or more folk, virtually all of whom stay for the Q and A – including a very bright and keen 15-year old boy who has caught the ‘acting bug’, but whose parents, he confides in me, aren’t keen on him pursuing that as a career, because ‘Actors are too “liberal”. The boy then asks me, ‘Sir, are the actors in your country also liberal?’

I think I know what he’s driving at, and after some discreet discussion, I advise him that when the time comes he should follow his heart – which is what I did 43 years ago.

Next day, we say farewell to Jake who is heading back to work in Washington, while Bill and I head further west, out of Ohio and on to Indiana and South Bend, where we will perform at our first Catholic-run venue.

South Bend is home to the renowned Notre Dame University, which I am keen to visit.

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It has a famous American football team (and stadium), a basilica well worth visiting, and a replica of the Lourdes grotto in its grounds – where many a candle is lit (by those who can’t get to the real Lourdes, I imagine).

I light one for two people I know who are currently coping with serious illness.

‘If y’all would like to visit the basilica,’ says Leah, our host here, who is from Texas originally and has a delightful accent, ‘I can introduce y’all to a conscientious objector.’

‘From the Vietnam War era?’ I ask.
‘A little further back.’
‘The Korean War?’
‘Nope.’
‘World War Two then,’ I suggest. ‘He must be pretty old if so – I mean, I did meet a 97-year old WW2 British CO on my autumn tour in the UK.’

‘In here,’ she says. The basilica of Notre Dame University is around 175 years old and decorated in beautiful bright colours and has gorgeous stained glass windows. Above our heads on the west wall sits a vast organ.

Leah leads us to the high altar and then round the back of it. ‘Don’t be too long,’ says a church custodian. ‘There’s a funeral service taking place shortly.’

Leah points to a casket beneath the high altar. ‘There he is. Well, his relics at any rate.’

‘Who?’ I ask.

‘The conscientious objector. Saint Marcellus. He was a centurion in the Roman Army around 300 A.D. who suddenly resigned his rank, declaring that war was wrong. When he repeated these beliefs at his trial he was sentenced to be beheaded.’

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I gaze at the casket, overcome with awe. 300 A.D. As long as there has been war there have been conscientious objectors. As long as war continues to take place on this troubled planet of ours, there will be conscientious objectors.

I remember Roosevelt’s words, ‘I hate war’ – but here was someone 1700 years ago who literally put his neck on the line for such a belief.

Silently I offer up a prayer to one of the patron saints of C.O.s. Three words…
‘Thank you, Marcellus.’

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