RURAL BRYANT, SD, PRESENTS:
by Brother Rennard Svanoe,
July 25, 1994
"Letter to Luke," from Uncle Russell Schaefer & Aunt Bernice Schaefer,
July 17, 1994
Ist picture, As a Boy;
2nd picture, Nearing his Journey's End at 48, 2nd from Right, First Row
This is a sort of Retrospect after two decades. I will append now my own reflections and memories in the effort to understand this unusual person, who was born in a difficult, singular, and problematic position in his family-- youngest boy, a loner (not by choice but birth) who yearned to be one with his three older brothers, but who couldn't be--he was so different from the three--intellectually gifted, adept in college, choral singers, religious and/or philosophical-minded, tall, handsome, etc.
I think I have some understanding, for I can draw on my own own experience, which compares closely with Luther's in some significant respect because I too was the youngest boy (until a second marriage) in the Ginther family, following three older brothers who had little to do with me and seemed much more accomplished in every way.
It is remarkable that both Luther and I were the fourth son and the fifth child in our respective families! What chance is there of that happening in two closely related families?
I also lived with the Svanoe family for a time in the 1960s and observed them and their activities. I found that only one of the Svanoe brothers would have anything to do with me personally--Victor--but that was primarily after the two older brothers of his had left the home, leaving him in my company, whether he relished it or not. Luther too was still at home, and so I could gain more experience of both, along with the younger sisters and to some extent, the elder sister, Miriam.
As I felt in my own family back home, the way my older siblings treated me compared with the way the older Svanoe boys treated me--so there wasn't any real difference. I could have shared life far more with Luther, you would think, but in my case my introverted "misery" or just isolation or singularity in a large family group (that included landscaping workers employed by my Uncle and various boarders taken in by my uncle and aunt) did not like company, and he was not my peer, he was four years younger.
Luther found his teen-aged peers more convivial company than his family, as it developed, and ran with them every chance he could get. He came home only to sleep and grab a quick breakfast or dinner and then took off to be with his friends after working for his dad, having a ball at the teen-agers' dance halls to early hours of the morning usually--so even if I had wanted to fraternize with Luke, he didn't give me any real chance, I didn't fit his teenaged, partying group, being four years older and inclined to be a bookworm and introvert.
Nevertheless, his life and struggle to find himself, find identity and manhood, affected me. I regret that I negatively affected him. I recall going swimming with him once or twice in a nearby lake. That was not a bad experience, it was actually pretty funny. Fish were always after him, it seemed, in the water, particularly after a cloudburst occurred and we were in the water. I saw the fish picking at a particular wart on his stomach, and he did everything he could to fend them off, for it hurt!
Another time he came home from partying, and heard him knocking at the back door (I slept in a basement room), and was he ever glad I heard his soft knocking and came and opened up for him--as he was really afraid his mother might come down to investigate and really get after him for his escapade at the teen dance hall and of course a date afterwards with one of his teen-aged, "anything-you-wanna-do-is-fine-with-me chicks."
He thanked me profusely for opening up the door, sparing him a real confrontation with his mom or dad--and I thought then I had done him a good favor, and so I had--he had escaped punishment for that time anyway.
I left work at the Svanoes eventually and returned home and years later heard a few things now and then about Luther, which indicated he was struggling after his Viet Nam service, finding it hard to find his role back in society. He didn't marry either and stayed single.
Eventually, in 1994 (a few years after my marriage had failed, and I was struggling myself to pick up the pieces of my life) I heard he was very ill, and then came news he was not going to live (in a letter from Rennard).
We were requested to write to Luther to share anything we wanted with him, our last chance to communicate with him.
I thought about it, but my own relationship with Luther had not been good, and I had not done anything to mend it, and now there was this last chance to say something, but I couldn't bring myself to ask his forgiveness. I didn't get any "closure", consequently, when we heard he had died.
But came news in letters that Luther had a real spiritual experience, he had been led to the Lord and made a decision for Christ in his remaining hours on earth--by his mother! She had such great love for her children, and loved Jesus dearly above everything else in life, it was no surprise that she did this--but Luther's affirmative response was heart-warming to me, I felt he had "come through and I could even envy him, my younger cousin who, like myself, had not achieved anything praiseworthy in life or found a lasting relationship with a woman in marriage and had children of his own. This he had though: he had no issues anymore to battle, he was indeed a man and had peace with God and men.
If I am not yet experiencing reconciliation with him, I must seek it in heaven. I mistreated other people and loved ones in my life--so when Christ restored me to faith in 1976 I felt I had to find ways to deal with this and I have asked the Lord to bring it about--as, regretfully, I dropped the ball in 1994 when Rennard gave me the chance (for which I felt I was not prepared, feeling yet so torn up by the break-up of marriage).
Luther, if he had lived, would be 68 years of age. That doesn't seem much of a difference now to me at age 71 going to be 72 come August. We might even see each other as peers and find much in common, far more than we did when we were both young. But it was not to be. He died relatively young at age 48, yet he didn't die naive and inexperienced, he had seen life in every shape and form by that time, and knew what men and women were, and even what true men and true women were--for he had run through every experience possible he could indulge in, and so he knew the world and he knew the spiritual life too--which he had witnessed closely in his own family and in his parents and in his wider family Relationship.
In significant ways, Luther had more experience of the world than I had, at his terminal age 48, than I have today at age 71-72.
Experience without resolution, full of inner conflict, is a recipe for turmoil. But he came to the end of his life's road and then accepted Christ--and Christ was waiting for him to do that all those troubled years previous. I am sure Luther thought, "Why did I wait so long?"
Yes, why? Why? God knows. We struggle and struggle, and bring so much pain on ourselves, it seems needlessly, when all the time the Lord is waiting for us to give up struggling and just take Him on his terms, and then we find it is so wonderful taking him that way--God couldn't do more for us, it is all so wonderful knowing him personally and receiving all he has been wanting to give us, but which we spent years and years pushing away, like I once saw Luke fighting to fend off all those hungry fishes in the water around him in the Minneapolis lake.
As for this account of mine, it doesn't satisfy me entirely, and I am not sure everyone of Luther's family will like everything I say about Luther, but I have had these experiences, and I am trying, as Luther was, to deal with them honestly, to "call a spade a spade" without flinching. If I could deal more with unpleasant and even threatening realities that way, honestly, and light-heartedly as Luther dealt with some of realities despite his own haunting Viet Nam memories and leanings on comforting, sly, old Mr. Barleycorn, I would be even more like him too than I presently am, but I am still going to make every effort to trust in God's mercy and grace to carry me onward, so that I too might finish my course.
That is my my hope for others, and that is my hope for myself.
If I have offended anyone who loved Luther, I regret that, but I am probably going to offend someone if I try to tell the truth I know. As for total transparency and total candor, you are not going to get that from me. Have I gotten that from you? Sometimes it is not doing anyone a favor by airing all your dirty laundry, or "telling all." Would that do anyone any good? It is true as the Bible says, that Love "covers a multitude of sins." Well, Love covers loved ones you and I have too, and so I will let love finish the job, have full expression, and cover me too--and then let Christ deal with any further issues not dealt with.
If that doesn't even satisfy you, friend, you can take it up with my Lover and Savior, Jesus My Shepherd, who suffered on the Cross, shed his blood, and died for me. Because of HIM, I can walk spanking clean, and completely free of any condemnation.
Lessons: Phil. 3: 7-16; I John 3: 1-3, 19-24' Acts 20:24
Luther Svanoe was a man who, like St. Paul, did nto count his "life of any value or as precious to himself, if only he could accomplish his course" (Acts 20: 24). Paul of course was following in the steps of his Master in this respect. Jesus, near the end of his life, set his face toward Jerusalem, even though he knew death awaited him there. This attitude, of setting one's face toward death, is not easy for people to accept or understand. They easily misinterpret it as a death wish or suicidal leanings.
Jesus said, "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and now I am constrained until it is accomplished." The last night of his life, he said, "I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer, for I tell you I shall not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God."
Jesus had his heart set on finishing the course; I believe Luke also had that desire. And yet Jesus had the same natural revulsion toward suffering that any normal human would, for he said in the Garden of Gethsemane, "Father, if Thou art willing, remove this cup from us; nevertheless, not my will but thine be done."
And when he knew in his heart it was the Father's will for him to drink the cup, he didn't flinch, but got the issue behind him so he could deal witht he others around him: "Put your sword back." "I am the one you say that I am."
And the Father loved him for it. Jesus knew it and said, "For this reason, the Father loves me, because I lay down myt life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father."
This is what distinguished Jesus' followers in the first century. They learned from their Master ho not tocount their lives as of value to themselves, that they might the better grasp God's will for them, in full confidence that they would also grasp his resurrection power.
Luther did not have to go to Viet Nam. The rule was that no American family needed to have more than one son in that war. Victor was already designated for Viet Nam. Luther did not count his life of value to himself, and went too. It was the thing to do.
[Note: Born the youngest Svanoe boy in the family, Luther followed three considerably older brothers. The next brother to him in in age was Victor Svanoe, six years older, who was born in 1940, whereas Luke was born in 1946. It is noteworthy and characteristic that Luke followed this particular brother, his closest male sibling, to Viet Nam, to engage in war in the U.S. military. Now Luke was not an intellectual as his three older brothers were, he had no such talent or inclination. He could not compete or seek to join them on that level. I lived with the Svanoes during the 1960s as I worked for Uncle Bill in landscaping, and I never saw Luther with a book, not once. His bookish, scholastically distinguished brothers, then, were just the opposite of their youngest brother--they lived in the world of books, college studies, theology, classical music, chess, concerts, quartet practice and performances, etc., and were always philosophizing and discussing hot button topics current in the intellectual, academic, and theological culture they admired so much while attending and making names for themselves as outstanding students at Augsburg College.
If not intellectually, what possible way could "their poor little brother Luke" follow them then? He took an opposite tack: If he couldn't possibly intellectualize and philosophize with them, he could do what came naturally to him. One thing they did not seem to have much interest in was women--yes, the "opposite sex." Luther found them irresistable and made them his specialty. He went "mad about them." But how could that lead to anything stable, purposeful, and productive in life? An older brother who had settled on his life mate already, tried to talk sense into his little brother and admonished him about it finally. "Quit running from one girl to the next, settle down with one, Luke!" he advised Luke in my hearing. He wasn't judgmental saying that, he spoke kindly for a big brother. But Luke couldn't find words on that occasion to explain why he could never, never could do this. He was tongue-tied and he blustered out something or other and the subject, mercifully, was changed. He was not interested that way in the women as his brother advised, and formed no lasting relationship with any of them. He no doubt knew his parents would not have approved of any of them as "they weren't Christian girls," to put it mildly. The Sacred Institution of Matrimony was not his goal at all, it seemed clear, unlike his brothers, two of whom married young in life just as their parents had done.
Then the Viet Nam war began. Here he saw was his main chance at last to follow his big brothers whom he idolized but couldn't normally follow up: he could at least fight! Oh, yes! Luke was a hunter from early boyhood, so he knew the handling of rifles, and liked the hunting sport very much (though his big brothers were not too keen on gun culture; yet I recall they did love canoeing in Northern Minnesota's lakes and rivers, something Luke could enjoy too). Now he had an opportunity to join this genuine pursuit and proven ability of his to his quest for identity and comradeship with his older brothers! For him it truly seemed a Win-Win deal, only it brought him worse problems than he had ever known, soon after he set foot in the mud and blood and gore of Viet Nam.--Ed.]
Maybe if he knew in advance what he would encounter [in war-torn, divided Viet Nam], he would never have gone. We don't know. For he found himself in a war where the enemy was clearly able to identify the American foe, but Americans were only with great difficulty able to identify their Vietnamese foes, who mixed easily with the civilian population.
Luther didn't complain about what he was called on to do, but I think he alluded to it at the Stadem family reunion on Plain View farm just under 2 months ago when he told the story of going hunting for birds as a boy on the farm. We still have a picture of Luther with his gun on the farm.
He shot a lot of birds and put them in a pile. When asked, "What kind of birds were they?", Luther answered with off-handed lightness, "Oh, all kinds." Aunty Ruth took Luther's gun away from him, but Luther said, "I got it back the next day." [I have seen that picture, and it is horrible, that big pile of beautiful songbirds he massacred--but he sure had fun doing it, and was proud as a peacock too! And this from a mean "someone" who massacred some baby blackbirds on PVF in their nest!--Ed.]
One of the toughest things about Viet Nam for the fresh, naive young man from Minnesota was having to shoot all kinds in order to survive in that war.
Al [Alfred Svanoe] asked Luther, as he looked back on his life, what was its high point. And he answered, "My unit in Viet Nam." But as special as the bonding that took place among the soldiers who would die to protect each other, because of the horror of that war he wasn't able to talk about it much. He even had psychological blocks that prevented himfrom remembering the names of his buddies.
But he had the courage not only to go to Viet Nam, but the COURAGE OF HIS CONVICTIONS, learned from the example of his mom and dad no doubt. He told me of circling above a fleeing Vietnamese in his helicopter. As crew chief he manned the submachine gun and was responsible to shoot the fleeing man. He couldn't. Luther, according to Al, took issue with his commanding officer about the conduct of the war and was demoted in rank because of it.[I do believe this is an ancestral Stadem characteristic--as I too felt a deep, deep revulsion to the idea of taking any human life. I knew our country had to be defended and freedom defended (no contest there), but I made up my mind that if I were ever assigned to Viet Nam, being drafted into the Army but allowed to enlist in the Air Force instead, I would refuse to do combat, I just could not shoot any man--and knew that decision would put me automatically in the Base Stockade, a notorious, brutalizing place for any "cowardly soldier" to go, and probably result in my being Court Martialed, and discharged with a black-listing, job-denying Dishonorable Discharge on top of it.--yet I was resolved to do this, as I could not think of facing myself in the mirror in the years to come, knowing I had killed people. Was that what makes a "Conscientious Objector"? I don't know. It wasn't a principle or scruple with me. It wasn't Christian faith or training. I just know that decision did not make me a courageous and moral person, not by any means. What it was, it was just that I knew instinctively that I (poor, wretched Ron Ginther, running from God at the time like the poet described himself in classic "Hound of Heaven") could not live with myself in the future if I were to go and kill over in Viet Nam. Period.--Ed.]
Why didn't Luther tell us about these things? Why didn't reports about his experiences in Viet Nam come out sooner?
It could have been Luther's natural reserve in talking about himself and his feelings. Something others of us, too, inherited from our dad.
Or it could have been due to the pain associated with the memories of the war. Pain so acute that the way to cope was to repress the memories. And if you could repress them only in the daytime and they came out in the form of nightmares, you drowned them out with alcohol. And the toughest part of sobriety for Luther must have been having to experience the pain of these memories and cope with them some other way.
And Luther found that other way finally: talking them out. And Brother Al was a listening ear he could trust with the talking out process. And this together with prayer, according to what he told sister Naomi, began to gain for him some resolution of the inner conflict. And Naomi pronounced the absolution for Luther when she told him she and we were glad Luther did wehat he had to in order to survive the war, for it brought him back to us.
Aunt Marge said about Luther that more than his brothers he had a sweet spirit, like his father Bill, an accepting spirit.
In his last 2 months [of life] he accepted everyone's attentions both wanted or unwanted. Yet when directly asked if he wanted to talk to someone he showed another quality, his HONESTY, saying "no," if that's the way he felt. He could call a spade a spade. At one point he is reported to have said when talk about Jesus was going around, "I just don't get it!" and put his pillow over his head. He didn't dissent to cause disappointment or hurt, but out of sincere feelings of bewilderment.
Luther got his first name from the great Martin Luther whose doctrine of the free grace of God in Jesus Christ shook up the medieval church. But our Luther changed his name, though not officially, to Luke. Luke was the writer of the 3rd gospel, a physician. Our Luke wanted to be a care-giver, as was his new name sake. He wasn't interested as much in John 3: 16 as he was in I John 3: 16, which reads, "By this we know life, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brethren."
Luther was a man who knew how to take risks for others and he did so in going to Viet Nam, in speaking up to his C.O. [Company Commander], in coming to Rachel's aid recently at some legal risk to himself, and in coming to the family reunion just 2 months before he died, though he must have felt in his body that something was wrong. He did this without complaining and with acceptance of the risk. He was a good soldier and he was our soldier. He was a good man to have around when the chips were down.
When he knew his chance for recovery was neglible, he refused treatment, looking death full in the face without flinching. Luther faced the end of life with great dignity.
Luther is the first of us 8 [Bill and Myrtle's] children to go from this life. As the oldest I feel I by rights should have been first as my Uncle Ansgar was for his family. But Luther is my pioneer. His courage andnobility in accepting realityt with unwavering purpose and calm has established a precedent that will help me some day. I too want to say some day like Paul of old, "I don't count my life as of any value, if only I can finish my course."
James Muilenberg, professor of Old Testament, used to say to his students, "Every morning when you wake up, before you reaffirm your faith in the majesty of a loving god, before you say, 'I believe' for another day, read the Daily News with its record of the latest crimes and tragedies of mankind, and then see if you can honestly say it again." Just as with Muilenberg, Luther's faith was not a seamless garment but a ragged garment with the seams showing, a garment that he clutched about him like a man in a storm [Terrific image here, Cousin Ren!--Ed.].
He wasn't always confident enough of his faith to repeat the words that he heard others around him say about Jesus and faith in Jesus. Luther put his confidence more in the implicit Christian faith of loving action than the explicit Christian faith of confessing words. His desire in the last few years was to make a living by caring for the long-term ill and had earned his California license.
The other night on the TV program "Northern Exposure," the friends in that Alaskan village stood around the grave of one of their friends and heard the pastor pronounce the words which I pronounce to you now from I John 4: 16: "God is love, and he who lives in love, lives in God, and God lives in him."
The evening of the day Luther died, Vic and I were listening to public radio as we sat in the car outside a Dairy Queen in Madison, Wisconsin. A Bach harpsichord number was playing as I was thinking about Lukie. I turned to Vic and said, "Thats Lukie's homecoming music!" And then the announcer said, "The composer of this music was Johann Sebastian Bach, on the death of a brother."
And Lukie would have liked the light-hearted title Bach gave this song for his brother, a song which I play for us now while I invite whoever wishes to come up and share their memories of Luther at the open mike. The title of the song was "Cappricio,"which in Italian means "fancy" or "wish." Not something solemn like requiem, but light-hearted "Cappricio" by J.S. Bach. (Sharing was by brother Victor Svanoe, Sister Debbie Wilken, Cousin Curtis Coatts, and, at the graveside, Sister Miriam Rinderknecht.)
Letter to Luke,
from Uncle Russell and Aunt Bernice Schaefer,
July 17, 1994
It was good to have seen you at the Stadem-Farm Family Reunion [June 1994]. It is only too often that we pass each other as strangers in the night, and like the Greek actors on a stage, we carry our roles, and hide behind a mask of conventional feeling, hiding the heart pains and ills that we feel lest we become objects of misguided and undesired sympathy.
Mim wrote about your lung cancer and the prognosis of a rapid demise. Since having had colon cancer I know what the possibilities were of having a shorter life ahead.
It has been a great consolation to me that God considers us of unique worth and value, that He sees us as positioned IN CHRIST, "Accepted in the Beloved" with all the acceptableness of Christ Himself, without blemish and without spot.
It is difficult for us to see ourselves as God sees us, in all the perfections of the Beloved Christ in Whom we have been engraced so fully and in Whom we are loved so deeply--if we could see as He sees, we would reflect more of what we have been made to be in Christ.
It was with your mom while at Bible Camp so many years ago that we first encountered a life to be lived in union with Christ. We have tried to give Him full measure in return for His having given His all--but what can we give? What does He need? So we gave Him our sins, our pains, our heartaches, and our disappointments. We found Him ample to our needs and His service worthy of our lives.
God looks at us and sees Christ--looks at Christ and sees us. It should be enough that we all are COMPLETE IN HIM, Co. 2:10.
We cannot offer a "weepy sympathy" for whatever days you may have, for each of us life is only as long as each shall live, whether a moment, an hour, a day, or decades. Whether short or long, God's love is never less than His ALL. So that we share, that we rejoice together with each other.
God loves you, Luke, it is there whether felt or not. No conditions or fences are placed on it. No merit or demerit is involved, only His giving.
Concerned, Aunty Be & Uncle Russ