Shortly after the end of the Second World War, Ron Goldstein decided to compile the notes, pictures, postcards of his recent service into a scrapbook. He was awaiting discharge and, as he says, “had plenty of time on his hands”. Then in 1988, Goldstein’s sister persuaded him to write a memoir to complement the scrapbook. He found that its pages were disintegrating with age and rebound them. Fortunately for us, Goldstein decided to reproduce each and every page on his blogsite. This was the result.
The Internet has been called mankind’s mind dump. In time it will also become our collective memory store, memorial and cenotaph. In Mr. Goldstein’s scrapbook the young will never grow old. Steven Pressfield’s compelling introduction to his book, Gates of Fire, expresses better than anything I have ever read the mission of the bearer of the tale. The time is minutes after the fall of Thermopylae to the Persians. The characters are the dead Spartans rushing across the river of forgetfulness. They have discharged all duty, save one.
I had always wondered what it felt like to die. …
I had imagined that the dead would be detached. That they would look upon life with the eyes of objective wisdom. But the experience proved the opposite. Emotion ruled. It seemed nothing remained but emotion. My heart ached and broke as never it could on earth. Loss encompassed me with a searing, all-mastering pain. I saw my wife and children, my dear cousin Diomache, she whom I loved. I saw Skamandridas, my father, and Eunike, my mother, Bruxieus, Dekton and “Suicide,” names which mean nothing to His Majesty to hear, but which to me were dearer than life and now, dying, dearer still.
Away they flew. Away I flew from them.
I was keenly conscious of the comrades-in-arms who had fallen with me. A bond surpassing by a hundredfold that which I had known in life bound me to them. I felt a sense of inexpressible relief and realized that I had feared, more than death, separation from them. I apprehended that excruciating war survivor’s torment, the sense of isolation and self-betrayal experienced by those who had elected to cling yet to breath when their comrades had let loose their grip.
That state which we call life was over.
I was dead.
And yet, titanic as was that sense of loss, there existed a keener one which I now experienced and felt my brothers-in-arms feeling with me. It was this.
That our story would perish with us.
That no one would ever know.
I cared not for myself, for my own selfish or vainglorious purposes, but for them. For Leonidas, for Alexandros and Polynikes, for Arete bereft by her hearth and, most of all, for Dienekes. That his valor, his wit, his private thoughts that I alone was privileged to share, that these and all that he and his companions had achieved and suffered would simply vanish, drift away like smoke from a woodland fire, this was unbearable.
We had reached the river now. We could hear with ears that were no longer ears and see with eyes that were no longer eyes the stream of Lethe and the hosts of the long-suffering dead whose round beneath the earth was at last drawing to a period. They were returning to life, drinking of those waters which would efface all memory of their existence here as shades.
But we from Thermopylae, we were aeons away from drinking of Lethe’s stream. We remembered.
A cry which was not a cry but only the multiplied pain of the warriors’ hearts, all feeling what I, too, felt, rent the baleful scene with unspeakable pathos.
Then from behind me, if there can be such a thing as “behind” in that world where all directions are as one, came a glow of such sublimity that I knew, we all knew at once, it could be nothing but a god.
Phoebus Far Darter, Apollo himself in war armor, moved there among the Spartiates and Thespaians. No words were exchanged; none were needed. The Archer could feel the men’s agony and they knew without speech that he, warrior and physician, was there to succor it. So quickly that surprise was impossible I felt his eye turn toward me, me the last and least who could expect it, and then Dienekes himself was beside me, my master in life.
I would be the one. The one to go back and speak. A pain beyond all previous now seized me. Sweet life itself, even the desperately sought chance to tell the tale, suddenly seemed unendurable alongside the pain of having to take leave of these whom I had come so to love.
But again, before the god’s majesty, no entreaty was possible.
The last duty is to tell the tale.