Get Back Up

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Like a lot of children born during the depths of the Great Depression, Donnie Dunagan grew up in poverty.

But not many kids could say that they became the family breadwinner even before they could read and write.   

After winning a talent contest at the age of three-and-a-half, Donnie and his family moved to Hollywood.  He appeared in a number of films, including Son of Frankenstein (1939), where at the age of five he played the offspring of Baron Frankenstein.  That’s the kind of role you can tell your friends about for the rest of your life.  You were the son of Frankenstein?  That’s so cool. 

Then there’s the role Walt Disney asked Donnie to play in 1942 – the voice of the young Bambi in the famous animated feature. 

Bambi was a smash hit.  But it’s not nearly so cool to tell your grown-up friends that you voiced the long-legged fawn who struggles to learn about life, love, and how to maintain one’s balance on a frozen pond.  That’s especially true if you establish a hard-earned reputation as a tough guy – like, maybe, if you end up becoming the youngest-ever drill instructor in the history of the Marines. 

Which is exactly what happened to Donnie Dunagan. 

In 1952, at the age of 18, he enlisted in the Corps.  Dunagan would go on to serve three tours in Vietnam, where as a battalion commander he was wounded on multiple occasions.  Before his retirement in 1977 he had earned three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and the rank of major. 

Later in life, Donnie was asked if he ever told his fellow Marines about his role as a cartoon deer.    

“No chance!  I never said a word to anybody.”  Dunagan dreaded the possibility that he might end up becoming known as Major Bambi.  “I didn’t even tell my wife until well after we were married.”

One of the realities of living in the Information Age, however, is that such secrets usually don’t remain secrets forever.  

After his cover was finally blown, Dunagan came to appreciate his brief moment in the Disney spotlight.  Today, at 87, he admits, “I love it now.  When people realize this old jerk was Bambi and is still alive, it’s pretty neat!”

Donnie also came to realize he has had at least one real-life connection with the fictional deer.

The movie’s most traumatic moment is the death of Bambi’s mother, who is shot by a hunter.  After he grows older Bambi himself is felled by a bullet.  But he’s still breathing.  Dunagan reflects, “Now Bambi is down.  And when big animals are down, they don’t get up.  Their respiratory system turns bad, and they die.  So Bambi is down and here comes his father, really close-up on camera.  He stands over Bambi and says, ‘Bambi, get up, get up, you must get up.’  Bambi does.”

He then recalls one of the worst nights of his life.

In Vietnam I’m in the mud, two o’clock in the morning, close combat, incredibly violent.  I’m the commanding officer of a unit that needs me really bad, and I get hit.  I’m down.

“I’m half conscious; they need me to be conscious.  I had to get on the radio to call for support.  I’m down, and I’m in the mud, and a wonderful young Marine, great kid, stood over me:  ‘Captain, Captain, Cap, we need you, sir, get up, get up!’  I did get up, enough to use a radio.”

There’s an old saying:  A saint is just a sinner who fell down…and got back up.

Life is not easy.  None of us is going to get out of this world unscathed.  There are times that you will go down.

You must get back up.

Others need you, even if you don’t know it.  God is not finished with you, even if you can’t see it. 

At the end of his letter known as I Corinthians, the apostle Paul gathered multiple words of encouragement into what we now identify as a single verse:  “Listen, stay alert, stand tall in the faith, be courageous, and be strong” (16:13).   

Today you may feel more like Bambi than the son of Frankenstein.  But God’s message to you will always be the same:

It’s time to get back up.