“The Second Mile,” Erwin A. Thompson’s novel offers an intimate look at the cost of war and then…the return home, without benefit of hero’s welcome

“Going the second mile” was a catch-phrase in our family, and comes from the Bible, Matthew 5:4 41 “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.” [A Roman official could require any subject of the Roman empire to bear a burden, or carry a load for one mile.] “Going the second mile” means doing more than expected. This is my father’s credo, said in fewest words.

“The Second Mile,” a novel by Erwin A. Thompson
The Second Mile, a novel of war and peace by Erwin A. Thompson

While Thompson’s novel, “The Second Mile” is fictional, the army experience, and post-war adjustment of Sergeant Ed Mason have much in common with those of the author, Sergeant Erwin Thompson, who was decorated for heroism in World War II, for a dangerous night patrol during which he was filled with shrapnel. The fictional hero and the author also have the same roots, in the work and music of rural Southwestern Illinois. The author’s careful rendering of his own experience makes this a historical record of those times and places as well as a good yarn.

Two years ago (June 24, 2006) Pop appeared at the Second Reading Bookstore in Alton, Illinois for what would be for most authors an hour of reading and speaking—maximum. But not my Pop, then 90. He enthralled us all afternoon—from 1 to 4:20 p.m. with stories, songs, his own poems, and readings from his novel “The Second Mile.” Fortunately, we had our documentarians there to record this moment of oral history. The afternoon not only produced many memories of its own and recovered others, but we now have a set of audio and DVD tapes of Pop’s presentation.

I’d flown in from Northern California to support Pop with the musical portion of his presentation. We dusted off our violins and voices to bring back an era those present dimly remembered or had not lived through in the first place. We played 10 songs during the afternoon and ended, quite fittingly with “Lights Out.”

Afterwards, taking my evening walk on Riehl Lane, I met a neighbor who said Pop was in good form and good voice, and spoke “commandingly” (as befits an army sergeant). Another audience member there said how so many memories flooded in as a result of my father’s stories and songs.

by Erwin A. Thompson

I called them all “My boys,”
Who—green as they could be
Had come for us to train,
And be sent across the sea.

I laughed and cussed at their mistakes,
And foolish questions at the breaks.
But to fit them for the test,
I gave to them my best.

When they shipped out it made me sad,
I knew it had to be.
For someone had to fight this war
To keep our coutry free!

In England, France, and Germany,
I met a few again.
It made me proud as I could be
To find that they were MEN!

As my father spoke, I felt he offered us an education in war—which is an important component of Peace Education. He showed the intimacy of war in book I of “The Second Mile.”

Then, in a poignant entre-act, he offers us “A Lady of Quality” followed by Book II which shows us the hero’s return and re-adjustment to civilian life. Nothing quite like this exists in the history of war novels.

It is the tenderness of “The Second Mile” that sets it apart. We had to make sure to pack one of my Pop’s big red handkerchiefs for the reading when tears would come as that tenderness welled up in his eyes.

These stories of my father’s are mentioned in several poem in SLIM, his section in “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary.” These public events that we did after Mother’s passing in May 2006 were the best way to keep his heart thumping and thriving.

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