"Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever." -Paul

02 September 2008

A Story

By Matt

I read: Mark 6:30 - 9:3

Again, none of the stuff I was looking for showed up in today's reading but I did find this little nugget: "None of this had yet penetrated their hearts." This is Mark/Eugene's commentary on what happens when the disciples are quick to be afraid after seeing what they imagine is a ghost on the water. So true.

But what I want to talk about is a bizarre little story that I read in The Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson. It's a rather large book all about the American Army in WWII. Big surprise there. Anyways, Atkinson tells the story of how the Allies were beginning to suspect that the Germans were going to start using poisonous gas in the runup to the Allied advance on Rome. This never happened, of course, but the Allies decided they should probably prepare for it. So, they loaded up a ship with mustard gas and sent it out to the port city of Bari in Italy. It sat in the ship's hold in the harbor with only a few people knowing the contents of the cargo while other priority ships were unloaded first.

Anyways, no one really thought much about the mustard gas until the night that the Germans launched a devastating air raid on Bari and decimated the docks. Many of the boats still waiting to be unloaded took direct hits, including boats with ammunition and gas. Hundreds of sailors were knocked overboard and into the burning sea and thankfully a good number of them were able to swim ashore or were rescued by other boats. Unfortunately the boat carrying the mustard gas was also hit and the mustard was leaking into the water and contaminating it. And that's in addition to the gas that hit atmo and drifted into the town of Bari.

So, all of these sailors and dock workers are piling into the overcrowded hospitals and are starting to have their eyes seize shut and are complaining of burning on their skin that isn't consistent with being in oily water. But the doctors don't know about the mustard gas so they can't treat the men properly by removing the contaminated clothing so they aren't breathing it in for hours. Some of the doctors had their suspicions but nothing to base it on other than similar symptoms. In the end hundreds of American servicemen and Italian civilans died of mustard gas poisoning and didn't even know it.

However, there's a postscript. In the confusion and speculation, many of the bodies were autopsied. Doctors performing the autopsies noticed the damage to white blood cells and lymph tissue. After the war some of those doctors found out that it was mustard gas but were intrigued by the destruction of the white cells and lymph. That discovery was the opening of a new field of medicine: oncology. And the mustard gas was the ancestor of the oncologist's first weapon: chemotherapy.

It's kind of a strange time for me to hear this story as exactly 8 years ago I would be in my last week of my life before chemotherapy started. In some, strange connected way, my life is the legacy of the Luftwaffe's raid on Bari, and by extension the introduction of chemical warfare to the European battlefields of WWI. It's a strange and disgusting thought to think that my existence is balanced on the horrible toll in lives that preceeded it. I suppose that's true for all of us somehow or another, but it's not a thought that surfaces very often. I don't know what to make of it, really. Is all this serendipity? Is it God's "plan"? I guess if there's anyone who can redeem the horrors of mustard gas, it's God, but are his fingerprints on this mess?

I guess the best thing to say for today's ramble is that I will come away with no answers. So often my reading and journaling is directed at discovery of a truth or principle that will help me understand God, faith, life, etc. in some new light. Today there is no new light, just more questions. And, strangely, I'm at peace with that.


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