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What is Your Epithet?

August 24, 2020 — 5 Comments

Everyone has epithets, even though we’re probably not aware of most of them. Some might be unflattering, but we could be pleasantly surprised by positive descriptive phrases people associate with our names.

First, it’s necessary for us to clear the air. Although the modern usage of the word “epithet” is usually negative, that is not the sole—or even primary—use of epithet. Far from being derogatory, most epithets are affirming. That’s because “epithet” is derived from the Greek verb epitithenai which simply means “to put on.” Basically, an epithet is anything that’s added to a person’s name to distinguish them as a particular individual.

Let me offer a simple quiz. What common epithet is often linked to all of the following historical figures?

Charlemagne, King of the Franks
Catherine, the Empress of Russia
Peter, Tsar of Russia
Alexander, the King of Macedonia
Kamehameha I, King of Hawaii
Constantine I, first Christian Emperor of Rome
Frederick, King of Prussia
Rhodri, King of Gwynedd

We can expand this list with several historical figures recorded in the holy Scriptures:

Herod, King of Judea
Cyrus, Founder of the Persian Empire
Darius, Third Shahanshah of the Persian Empire

Obviously, I provided far more options than necessary for you to discern the common epithet. Each of them is, of course, called “the Great.” (Bonus points to anyone recognizing Rhodri the Great; I assume only Mere Inkling’s Welsh readers will know who he was.)

If you think my list is lengthy, check out the wikipedia list of people referred to as “the Great.” And feel free to supplement it, if you recall someone they missed.

A common Christian epithet is “Apostle.” It’s not really a title, though it’s frequently used that way, especially when applied to the original fourteen.⁑ This Orthodox Christian website provides a list of early missionaries who earned the same epithet, including Patrick the Apostle to Ireland and Ansgar, the Apostle to the North.

Back to the Question

So, given that epithets can be neutral or positive, are you aware of any of yours? Our ten grandchildren are developing wonderful senses of humor. I’ve joked with them all ever since they were tiny. More than once they’ve called me their “Funny Grandpa.” That’s an epithet I can be proud of.

Back in my high school years, because I spoke with (assumed) authority on nearly any subject, a couple people called me the “Voice of Experience.” Which just reminded me—literally, as I was typing this—that back at my first active duty assignment, our wing commander publicly bestowed on me an epithet.

There at Reese Air Force Base we were conducting our very first Military Tattoo ceremony. Quite unexpectedly, after doing the yeoman’s work* in composing the lengthy ceremony, he selected me to be the emcee for the extravagant community event. The event flowed flawlessly. The next day, Colonel (later General) Lillard referred to me as the “Voice of Reese.” My wife was suitably impressed!

Now, I have no doubt I’ve accumulated a number of pejorative epithets during my life as well. The good thing about those though, is that people usually don’t share them to our face.

As for your own epithets, you might think of words that friends repeatedly use to describe you. If you’ve been called humble, trustworthy, brave, patient or witty by more than one person, you might be surprised to learn how many others associate that trait with you as well. Talented and smart are also common appellations from those who admire your your various skills or intellect. Sensitive is a nice epithet to own, although I confess it’s seldom applied to me.

Ruth Pitter, C.S. Lewis’ Friend

Pitter (1897-1992) was a highly regarded British poet. Living in artistic circles, it’s unsurprising that she describes her early life as “bohemian.” Bohemians tend to regard that epithet as admirable, while practical people such as myself consider it a negative term. Bohemian, of course, refers to “socially unconventional” behavior which may cover a multitude of alternative lifestyles.

Pitter, however, was also a friend of C.S. Lewis. And it was through his writings and their conversations that she became a Christian. In 1985, two decades after his death, she wrote,

As to my faith, I owe it to C.S. Lewis. For much of my life I lived more or less as a Bohemian, but when the second war broke out, Lewis broadcast several times, and also published some little books (notably The Screwtape Letters), and I was fairly hooked. I came to know him personally, and he came here several times. Lewis’s stories, so very entertaining but always about the war between good and evil, became a permanent part of my mental and spiritual equipment.

At one point in Lewis’ life he said although he was a confirmed bachelor, if he were to propose marriage, it would be to Ruth.

The two writers often critiqued one another’s works. In 1946, Lewis sent the following letter to Pitter. I reproduce the first half of it here not for its content per se, but because of its literary use of the word “epithet.” Presumably, seventy years ago its deprecatory usage had not gained dominance. (What strikes me as the most amazing thing about this letter, is the way in which the two share such a comprehensive knowledge that Lewis did not even need to cite the sources of the quotations to which he refers!)

Dear Miss Pitter–

Certainly a great many good lines have an epithet in them and depend principally on that epithet. But by no means all. Sometimes the work is done by a special use of a Noun:

multosque per annos sustentata ruet moles et machina mundi. (a)

or

how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes. (b)

sometimes by a verb:

J’ai mendiee la mort chez les peuples sauvages (c)
—where to get the effect one would almost have to translate “I have begged death as bread.” Or

Forever climbing up the climbing wave (d)

Though here something else, the “Figure” of repetition, comes in. Sometimes it turns on a Noun metaphorical:

Oh my America, my Newfoundland! (e)

Again and again it turns on Metaphor:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame. (f)

That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast. (g)

But I beneath a rougher sea
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he. (h)

But in all these there is something you may regard as equivalent to an epithet. There is another kind of poetry which seems to do it by simple statement:

Thou’ll break my heart, thou bonnie bird,
That sings on yonder bough. (i)

or

Twenty days and twenty nights
They went in red blood to the knee,
And he saw neither sun nor moon
But heard the roaring of the sea. (j)

No one will say that bonnie in the first or red in the second has much to do with the result. One might at a pinch say that the apostrophe to a bird in the first and the whole myth in the second are the same kind of thing as an epithet. But then there are still passages where the statement is of the most factual kind and yet (in its context) it is very poetry:

Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j’étais belle (k)

or

Fulsere quondam candidi tibi soles
Cum uentitabas quo puella ducebat
Amata tantum quantum amabitur nulla. (l)

Oh, and what about the chansons de gestes?

Roland is dead. God has his soul to Heaven (m)
(Roland est mort. Dieux en ad l’anme aux cieulx)

or

Paien unt tort et Chestien unt dreit
(Paynims [non-Christians] are wrong and Christians are right) (n)

The truth is that there are a great many different kinds of poetry and extreme roughness (or smoothness) evocative epithet (or plain statement), the metaphorical (or literal) the colloquial (or rhetorical) may all, in their place, rise to perfection.

And Finally, For Dessert

That was a lengthy quotation—particularly for readers who don’t thrive on poetry or literary criticism. Here, however, is a delightful use of the word epithet from C.S. Lewis’ youth. In a 1915 letter to his closest friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis gently chides him for his application of an “impertinent epithet.”

It may be true that it is easier to assign music to people we know, than to conjure up people to fit the music, but I deny that anyone’s character is really unlike their appearance. The physical appearance, to my mind, is the expression and result of the other thing—soul, ego, psyche, intellect—call it what you will. And this outward expression cannot really differ from the soul.

If the correspondence between a soul & body is not obvious at first, then your conception either of that soul or that body must be wrong. Thus, I am “chubby”—to use your impertinent epithet, because I have a material side to me: because I like sleeping late, good food & clothes etc. as well as sonnets & thunderstorms.


* Yes, I’m consciously mixing my military metaphors. While I served as a USAF “airman,” the term yeoman is a junior Navy rating or rank (i.e. the people who do most of the work).
⁑ The original fourteen include Matthias, who replaced Judas, and Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Sources for the citations in Lewis’ letter to Pitter:
(a) Lucretius, De Rerum Natura: “The mighty and complex system of the world, upheld through many years, shall crash into ruins.”
(b) Robert Herrick, “Upon Julia’s Clothes” (1648).
(c) “I begged for death among the savages.”
(d) Tennyson, “The Lotus-Eaters” (1833).
(e) John Donne, Elegies, “To His Mistress Going to Bed” (c. 1595).
(f) Shakespeare, Sonnet 129 (1609).
(g) Richard Lovelace, “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars” (1649).
(h) William Cowper, “The Cast-Away.”
(i) Robert Burns, “The Banks o’ Doon” (1791).
(j) Thomas Rymer and Queen of Elfland.
(k) Pierre de Ronsard, Sonnets pour Hélène: “Ronsard would sing my praise at the time when I was beautiful.”
(l) Catullus, Carmen: “Once the sun shone bright for you,/when you would go whither your sweetheart led,/she who was loved by me as none will ever be loved.”
(m) The Song of Roland (12th century).
(n) The Song of Roland.

Parachute Optional

January 27, 2015 — 8 Comments

c141Under what circumstances would you tell an airman that pulling their rip cord if they exit the plane is optional? I never knew of any until I read an article about resupply missions to the South Pole.

The current issue of Air Force Magazine includes a fascinating article about resupplying McMurdo Station and a second temporary site at the Pole itself. Because of the extreme cold, 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (that’s -73.333 degrees Celsius), any airman who accidentally fell from the plane as the pallets were dropped, could not expect to be rescued before freezing to death.

Parachute-laden crewmen standing near open doors of a C-141B Starlifter during a midwinter Antarctic airdrop in 1983 were told they could pull the D-ring ripcord if they fell overboard—or just not bother. The chance of being safely recovered in the darkness and [bone-freezing] temperatures was practically nonexistent.

Putting things in historical perspective, we can consider the fate of WWI pilots in Germany. Theirs was the first nation to provide standard parachutes, and during the first 70 bail outs, a third of the pilots perished. With those statistics, one wonders how many airmen followed the “just not bother” course of action and chose to remain with their plunging aircraft.

C.S. Lewis had a friend named Leo Baker who had served in France as a pilot of the 80th Squadron of the Royal Air Force. The two combat veterans hit it off because of shared interests, including their mutual love of poetry. Here is how Lewis initially described Baker to his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves, in 1920.

You ask about Baker, and I hardly know how to describe him. He was at a mixed school of a very modern type, where everyone seems to have written, painted and composed. He is so clairvoyant that in childhood “he was afraid to look round the room for fear of what he might see.” He got a decoration in France for doing some work in an aeroplane over the lines under very deadly fire: but he maintains that he did nothing, for he was “out of his body” and could see his own machine with “someone” in it, “roaring with laughter.” He has a bad heart.

He was a conscientious objector, but went to the war “because this degradation and sin might be just the very sacrifice which was demanded of him.” He maintains that everything in Algernon Blackwood [writer of ghost stories] is quite possible: and though the particular cases may be fictitious, “things of that sort” are quite common. He is engaged to be married.

In appearance, he is about my height, with very fair hair, glasses, remarkable eyes and according to the Minto [Janie Moore], rather like you. I like and admire him very much, though at times I have doubts on his sanity.

Like Lewis, Baker had been seriously wounded during the war. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Fortunately, it appears he did not have to rely on a primitive parachute. Or, if he did, he was one of the fortunate survivors.

Returning to Antarctica for just a moment, it seems that South Pole mission would have been an exciting adventure in which to share. Terrifying too, perhaps. Fortunately, like Lewis and Baker (and Tolkien, as well), all of the service members returned home safely, mission accomplished.

_____

The picture above is a military photograph of a pair of Emperor penguins observing an American C-141 resupply mission during the summer months.

Adoption = Love

November 21, 2013 — 14 Comments

coupleToday marks a very special day in our family, the anniversary of our oldest grandchild’s adoption into our family.

While seven of our grandkids are aged seven and younger, Andrew is an amazing young man who has already married a lovely young woman. My wife and I are terribly proud of the path he is on, which has taken him to Japan, where he is promoting peace as a member of the United States Air Force.

While we all naturally love children physically “born into” our families, there is a singular affection—a consciously chosen and active love—we extend to those we adopt.

Delores and I seriously investigated international adoption during my assignment to Korea in the late eighties. Unfortunately, the doors closed, and it was not to be. We believe strongly in the importance and delight of adoption.

Although adoptions bring a few unique challenges to the family mix, there is no stress free recipe for parenting. Every successful formula involves a number of the same ingredients. Among them, patience and forgiveness need to be poured out in considerable quantity.

I wish to commend each of you readers who have adopted a child, or helped others to do so. And I also pray for God’s blessing upon each of you who are foster parents.

Finally, I offer a prayer for each of you who are, yourself, adopted. May your relationship with your parents fulfill all of the hopeful dreams that were held by all on the day that you entered your “new” family.

C.S. Lewis knew a great deal about adoption. He recognized how ill-prepared he was to become a step-father and ultimately a widowed single parent. In a 1957 letter he wrote:

I have married a lady suffering from cancer. I think she will weather it this time: after that, life under the sword of Damocles. Very little chance (not exactly none) of a permanent escape. I acquire two schoolboy stepsons. My brother and I have been coping with them for their Christmas holidays. Nice boys, but gruelling work for 2 old bachelors! I’m dead tired now.

In his biography, Jack’s Life, Douglas Gresham, one of those “nice boys,” described the situation after the death of his mother, Joy.

Jack also had a new responsibility to take care of, two teenage stepsons, each presenting the typical problems associated with growing up, though each in his own unique way. As was typical of the man he had become, Jack did everything he could to help these two young men. He knew all too well from his own life’s experiences how difficult their lives had been and tried hard to do the best he could for them.

A closing thought, as we all return to our other tasks and diversions. Christians see themselves as adopted. While all humanity is created in the wondrous image of God, entrance into the community of faith, the family of God, comes through faith in his only begotten Son. Because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we are able to rightly call God, “Father.”

I’m overjoyed to be adopted into that holy family. And that adoption didn’t occur because I was smart, or handsome, or witty, or praiseworthy in any way. I was adopted solely because of the mercy and love of God.

And that divine adoption provides the perfect model for us to emulate in our world today.