One of my favorite books is about a young fictions character that made a mistake which cost him everything. I read this book first in Jr. High half a century ago, and I love it to this day. It was written in 1863 by Edward E Hale. The title is: “The Man without a Country.”
It is about a fictional character named Philip Nolan, a young lieutenant in the United States Army in 1807. In a moment of anger and deception, he cried, “Damn the United States of America, I wish I may never hear of the United States again!”
The courts granted him his wish that he would never see or hear of the United States as long as he lived. For the rest of his life, he was transported from one ship to another but was never allowed within a hundred miles of America from any direction. He died at sea.
From his early twenties to his mid eighties he never read or heard of America again. A young officer who took an interest in the old man about 30 years before Nolan’s death narrates this story. According to him, Nolan was the most patriotic American who ever lived. He tried to move heaven and earth to have him discharged and pardoned but with no success. After so many years no one in Washington knew who Nolan was. They denied that such man existed.
The story of this so called Nolan, once a young man who had self destructed in a moment of madness and unrestrained emotions, had been forgotten. Nolan, himself, had once confessed that the whole ordeal had been like a wretched nightmare of a boy’s idea of personal gain and fame.
Nearing the end of the story a few years before Nolan’s death a vehement and violent squabble had risen somewhere in the South Islands due to some slaves who were being set free. Nolan was the only one on the ship who spoke Portuguese. Therefore, he was asked if he could interpret for the slaves in order to bring peace in the midst of the vicious chaos.
The plan of the Commander in charge, Officer Vaughan, was to take all the slaves to Cape Palmas and set them free. The outrage came when the slaves refused to be sent to an island far away and unknown to them. Their plea was to be allowed to return to their own families and homeland where they had been kidnapped. They were willing to fight unto death for that right.
In the slaves’ language, Nolan helped resolved the issue, and they were promised a safe return home. In gratitude, all the slaves fell to the ground and kissed Nolan’s feet.
On the way back to the ship Nolan said to the young midshipman who accompanied him to the island: “Youngster, let that show you what it is like to be without a home, without a family
and without a country. If you are ever tempted to say a word or do a thing that shall put a bar between you and your family, or your country, pray God in His mercy takes you to His heaven that very instant.
“Stick by your family, boy. Forget you have self. Do everything for them. Think of your home, boy. Write and send and talk about it. Let it be near and nearer to your thoughts. The farther you have to travel from it --- rush back to it, when you are free as those poor black slaves are doing now.”
“And for your country, boy,” the words rattled in his throat. “And for that flag,” he said pointing to the ship. “Never dream a dream but to serve her as she bit you, though the service carries you through a thousand hells.”
“No matter what happens to you, no matter who flatters you, or who abuses you. Never look at another flag, never let a night pass but you pray to God to bless that flag.”
“Remember boy, that behind all these men you have to do with, behind officers and government and people even, there is the Country Herself.”
“She is your country and you belong to her as you belong to your own mother. Stand by her boy, as you would stand by your mother as if those devils of hell had gotten hold of her today.” (He was referring to the slave-traders who violently and mercilessly were trying to keep the slaves away from their homeland.)
Almost in a whisper he said, “O, that anyone would have told me this when I was your age.”
I hear people say all the time, “Young people today are so rebellious. We cannot tell them anything, so why try. If young people today are hard of hearing it is because they cannot hear what they cannot see.
Nolen was a broken old man full of wisdom, stripped of all his arrogance and self-will.
His wisdom came at a very high price. That’s the way wisdom comes for most of us. It does not come from wealth, education, or church attendance. It is hidden very deep within the human soul and it takes a lot of years of digging and peaking at its deepest point to find that diamond in the rough. It is hidden in the darkest crevasse of our wicked hearts. Our children long to see it in us so they can imitate us.
Not long ago, I was at the deathbed of a dying friend. With tears in her eyes, she shared with me her youthful regrets. She cried bitterly at the fact that she could not return to the past and make all her wrongs right. She loved the Lord deeply and knew she was going to heaven but her grief came as she recalled those wasted years. Like Nolan, wisdom came too late.
Millions still cry his words, “O, that anyone had told me this when I was your age.”
Someone once said, “Unless a man is broken he hardly has anything of great value to say.”
The story does not say if the young shipman understood the half of what Nolen said. But this we know, Nolen saw America with a different set of eyes, and loved it with a deeper passion.
Prayer: Have Mercy upon me oh God. According to Your loving kindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions that I might know how to pass down wise counsel and truth to another generation.