Ruminating on personal responsibility, part 1

A couple years ago, my wife and I decided to break in our new passports with our first overseas trip.

Actually, we were only planning to go to the East coast, until we learned we could spend a week in London for less than a comparable amount of time in New York. (Obviously, that was when the dollar still had a little residual value compared to the pound or euro.)

I had assumed that the highlight of our trip might be the British Museum or Westminster Abbey, or maybe the day trip we’d planned to Paris on the Eurostar. But in retrospect, what stands out most was when the British people made me cry.

It happened as we toured St. Paul’s Cathedral — perhaps the most awe-inspiring edifice it has ever been my pleasure to set foot in, with the possible exception of an Anasazi kiva.

Actually, it happened twice; the first came as we wandered through the apse behind the main alter, and stumbled on the American Memorial Chapel, dedicated to the American service men and women who were based on British soil during WWII and gave their lives to help keep Britain free. And yes, it brought tears to my eyes to experience the magnificence of the gratitude expressed by the British people in this most sacred of places.

Then we wondered down through the crypts below, past markers indicating the final resting places of John Dunne, Lord Nelson, Winston Churchill, Samuel Johnson, Henry Moore, T.E. Lawrence — better known as Lawrence of Arabia — and Florence Nightingale, just to name a few.

And there, amid some of the most revered names in Western history, was the grave of William S. (Billy) Fiske — a lowly American pilot who died fighting with the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain, before the U.S. even joined the war. And I’m not ashamed to say that it made me cry that this man, unknown in his own country, would be remembered with reverence in such a place of honor.

And even more, that the British people would feel such a responsibility to honor those who fought shoulder-to-shoulder with them to keep their country free, and together the other Allied nations, free the world from Nazi domination.

I suppose one reason it had such an impact on me was that my own father was one of those young Yanks stationed on English soil, before joining the invasion of France in the days just after D-Day. Thankfully, he was one of the lucky ones who made it home.

Growing up, I must have asked him a million questions about the war, but he never wanted to talk about it.

Oh, he’d tell me the funny stories, like being assigned to guard a French whorehouse, as the girls kept trying to temp him to come inside. Or the time he and a few other soldiers drove through the French countryside drinking champagne from the bottle, while they tossed confiscated German grenades out of the back, one at a time — only to find out later that the front had shifted, and they’d driven the whole way behind enemy lines.

But when I asked if he’d ever shot anyone, or if anyone in his unit had been killed, he wouldn’t answer. But the tears in his eyes told me all I needed to know.

I guess I come by it naturally.

When I got a little older, I asked how anyone could justify the firebombing of Dresden or the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

He explained that when the war ended, he’d been stationed on Okinawa, preparing for the planned D-Day style invasion of Japan, an invasion in which his unit had been told to expect 100% casualties. And I realized that he owed his life — and I, my very existence — to those bombs.

He finished by saying, “We all did terrible things during the war. But we did what we had to do.”

It was then I realized, for the first time, that he had assumed personal responsibility for the things he’d had to do. And would go to his grave bearing that awful weight, and asking God’s forgiveness for the rest of his days.

And for the first time, I began to understand my father.

Contrast that with today, when it seems that no one takes responsibility for anything.

At the end of WWII, we had a president who insisted that the buck stopped on his desk, and who assumed personal responsibility for making the decision to use atomic weapons.

Today, we have an administration in which no one ever assumes responsibility, and no one is ever held accountable. Not even for a war in which no weapons of mass destruction were ever found, and no connection to 9-11 ever existed, despite what we were told. And which will leave yet another generation of service men and women carrying the scars of their service for the rest of their lives, and countless lives and families, both here and in Iraq, disrupted forever.

This follows a president who looked the American people straight in the eye, and lied about an otherwise insignificant tryst in the Oval Office.

We live in a world in which gilded CEOs can bring the national economy to its knees and escape with multi-million dollar golden parachutes. Where politicians seek political cover rather than stepping up to make the difficult choices they were elected to make. Where we’re assured that campaign donations don’t buy access. Or votes. Where a vice presidential candidate is deemed qualified for the nation’s second highest office because she can see a foreign country from her state. And plausible deniability is the watchword of the day.

A world where genuine honesty and accountability belong on the Endangered Species List.

And personal responsibility lies in the tomb next to Billy Fiske.


So what the hell does this have to do with bicycling?

Part two, coming soon.


  1. Awesome post and thank you for enlightening me to Capt. Fiske. I get similarly emotional at such memorials and landmarks. I was in Savannah last week, with its monuments to Revolutionary war heroes such as Sgt. William Jasper and Count Casimir Pulaski who died attempting to recapture the town from the British in 1779. Got choked up and often.

    It was probably a good thing I didn’t have time to visit the Laurel Grove cemetery with its hundreds of Confederate soldiers who gave their lives at Gettysburg. Would’ve bawled like a baby.

    Looking forward to part two.

  2. bikinginla says:

    Thanks, Will. I had the same reaction to the Union soldiers at Andersonville, and the Confederate soldiers who died in the Battle of Port Hudson. Doesn’t matter what side they were on, it just breaks your heart to learn what they went through.

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