Captain Bertrand Rockwell

Ecclesiastes 4:15-16

What do you think about a person who hangs out in graveyards? I’m sorry, but I am such a person. One of my favorite places is Mt. Washington Cemetery in Independence, Missouri. Years ago, perhaps even before the couple of summers when I worked at the place, I discovered the grave marker of Bertrand Rockwell. It’s of him that I think when I read the next verses from Ecclesiastes.

I saw all the living, who move about under the sun, follow a second youth who succeeds him. There is no limit to all the people who were before them, yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:15-16

You’ll recall that these verses come on the heels of comments about an aged, foolish king. That’s the “him” mentioned here.

Captain Kid

All I remembered from that gravestone was that Rockwell was a Civil War captain. Visiting it recently, I marveled at something that hadn’t occurred to me in the past: his age. The Civil War began in 1861 when Rockwell was all of 17 years old. When it came to an end in 1865, he found himself 21 and a captain.

Captains tend to command companies within a regiment. I haven’t dug into this fellow enough to know what company he commanded, and his easily obtainable records show that he served in several companies, always within the 34th Iowa Infantry. I also don’t know when he was promoted. Rockwell came into the army as a private. Somewhere along the line he distinguished himself sufficiently to move into the officer ranks at a young age and then to advance to the rank of captain and the command of as many as 100 men.

Can you imagine the attitudes of some of the old hands in this company when they were informed that their new company commander only needed to shave every couple of days? Don’t you know that there were older men questioning how someone of 19 or 20 could possibly fill that role? Don’t you imagine there were many who thought, “they should have made me an officer instead of that upstart!”

Granted, officers needed to be able to read and write, which was no given in the Civil War, but I’m sure that at least some resentment must have arisen. But what does all that have to do with Solomon and Ecclesiastes and an old king or a “second youth”?

Getting in Tune

I’ll assume that Bertrand Rockwell became an officer at a very young age because of his merits, but others would follow along behind him. In that same war, the long-time American military hero Winfield Scott began the conflict in command of the armies, but a succession of younger men quickly came along to replace him, when he proved unequal to the task. Ulysees S. Grant had not quite reached his 43rd birthday when Lee surrendered.

If we believe that our efforts and accomplishments are in any way permanent, we need only wander to a grave marker in Mt. Washington Cemetery to be corrected. Wealth, position, and reputation are soon taken by someone else.

Nothing endures under the sun. That’s why we need to focus ourselves on the things beyond the sun.

Solvent as Sears?

Ecclesiastes 4:13-14

My mother’s first job was with Sears and Roebuck. She worked in the catalog department in the huge warehouse and store that used to stand just east of Kansas City’s downtown. Her favorite tale of those times is handling a return of some chickens that had died in transit. Sears doesn’t issue a catalog anymore. They don’t sell chickens or much of anything these days.

But there was a time when they were the big roosters in the retail barnyard. The slogan, “Solid as Sears,” was not a punchline in those days. Fifty years ago they were the biggest retailer in the world. Today, much diminished even after merging with another former giant, K-Mart, they’ve sold off most of their brand assets like Craftsman and Kenmore, and seem to be circling the drain. The question is when, not if, they will eventually collapse completely.

Since we don’t have kings these days, we can maybe apply Solomon’s ideas to companies–or maybe to ourselves.

Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer pays attention to warnings. For he came from prison to be king, even though he was born poor in his kingdom.

Ecclesiastes 4:13-14

Multi-Variable Math

It’s interesting to me that this text introduces three variables. He might have said it’s better to be poor and young than rich and old. Instead, he throws in that wisdom variable. Is it better to be a wise old king than a poor wise youth? I’m not sure, but clearly your wealth and position won’t help you if you are a fool.

Is it better to be young than old, all other things being equal? I think I’d opt for that, although I’m not sure Solomon would agree. Is it better to be rich than poor? We needn’t dignify that question with an answer. Clearly it is better to be wise than foolish. It’s the combination of these things that makes this passage a little tricky.

No Fool Like an Old Fool

Sears seems to have behaved foolishly, or maybe they’re just going the way that companies go after a 125 years. And what about people? Is it natural for people to become foolish, utterly stuck in their ways and resting on whatever success and position they have accrued over their lives? It certainly seems common, but there’s no reason to believe it to be natural.

From an early age, we are urged to do the right things. Stay in school. Work hard. Don’t do drugs. Save for retirement. Maintain a financial reserve. Floss. We’re admonished that if we do all of these things, then we will enjoy success. By and large, that advice is solid.

What a shame then that people follow that advice, attain a position of influence and respect, accumulate sufficient financial status to not worry, and then cease to listen to anyone around them. Such people wind up losing their influence and believing that their assets will render them important. If it doesn’t work for a king, it won’t work for mere commoners.

Getting in Tune

Most people who read this are not millennials. You’re mostly O4Cs (Over 40 Christians), and many of you have done a lot of the things that were impressed upon you over the years. Perhaps you have a secure job, good benefits, money in the bank, and all your own teeth. Congratulations.

Now that you have arrived or can at least see the destination to which you’re en route, don’t stop listening to wise counsel, especially the counsel of God. Solomon urges us to be wise, suggesting that whatever we have gained over the years, even to a crown, will likely be squandered if we’re not heeding warnings any longer.

Today, Sears stock is selling for $.29 a share. In 2005 if was over $50. Be glad if that wasn’t in your 401K.

What Will Stop Harriete? What Will Stop You?

Late last month, Harriete Thompson earned the inestimable right to plaster a 26.2 sticker on the back of her car. She finished a marathon. Finishing a marathon is no small feat for anyone. I’ve never done it. I do plan to give it a go in October, but I haven’t done it yet. I know I can, but I know it won’t be a simple thing.

Harriete Thompson has now done it 16 times, all of them in the San Diego Rock ‘n Roll Marathon. How do you finish a marathon? Harriete might (or might not) give this two-step process to finishing.

  1. Cross the starting line. That means sign up and begin the race.
  2. Don’t stop until you cross the finish line.

Easy, right? You have to start and then not stop until you’re done. Harriete has followed that prescription 16 times. She never let anything stop her. Her time, 7:24:36, won’t impress most people, but there are some details about this lady.

  • Harriete is 92 years old, the oldest woman ever to complete a marathon. She could have let her advanced age stop her, but she didn’t.
  • Her husband of 67 years died last years. She could have let the grief and disruption put an end to her racing, but she didn’t.
  • Harriete is a two-time cancer survivor, having battled skin and jaw cancers. She could have let that legacy stop her, but she didn’t.
  • She didn’t even start this activity until she was in her mid-70s, an age when most people are looking for the best place to park their recliners. She could have let that stop her before she started, but she didn’t.

Someday Harriete Thompson will stop running/walking marathons. Someday she’ll pass from this life, but until those days come, if past experience is any indication, she’ll keep pushing forward.

You and I will someday be unable to do the things that we want to do, eventually succumbing to death. That’s the nature of life. Harriete Thompson seems to see life as something to be lived as fully as possible for as long as the body allows.

Why should any of the rest of us do any less?