For Your 4th of July…a Priority

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This morning, I am thinking about a “letter to the editor” that I cut from our local newspaper on June 10, 2010.  Ten years ago, I had it framed.  It described history that should be remembered.  Today, I’m also thinking about our upcoming holiday. . .

When I was growing up, the 4th of July wasn’t just an excuse for a long weekend.  Do you remember?  The 4th of July was one of the “big four” holidays and uniquely celebrated. 

Thanksgivings held lavish feasts.  Christmas was for hot chocolate and a manger and we actually got to put a tree inside the house.  Easter meant new shoes for church.  New shoes that mama liked and I didn’t.   But Independence Day was totally different. Firecrackers and homemade ice cream.  Ribs on the grill.  We spent long summer evenings at the lake or a swimming pool or even in our own backyard. 

American Flag Tag

I noticed then that everything about “the Fourth” was more relaxed.  Daddy cooked.  Mama laughed with her friends who walked around in baggy Bermuda shorts drinking lemonade out of that special pitcher that was “just for the adults” while we caught fireflies or hit sweet gum balls over the fence with a wiffle bat.  Mae Mae and Granddaddy were always there.  So were my other grandparents, Nana and Daddy Mac. 

Families—sometime whole neighborhoods—would gather, pausing to connect in a way that seems almost embarrassing now.  Grandmothers fed kids they didn’t even know from their own plates after they’d already had the spoon in their mouth and shushed anyone who dared object.  One daddy might teach another daddy’s boy how to stand when he held a bat or how to make a sound with only his hand and an armpit.  Children fell off swing-sets and cried like their legs had been cut off, but nobody threatened to sue anybody or even acted mad.

Later, when it was completely dark . . . when we were tired of catching frogs under the street lights; when the big kids had said goodbye and left in their cars to do whatever big kids did in their cars . . . a lot later, after all the “black-cats” and bottle-rockets and cherry bombs were used up; after the little kids had burned all their sparklers . . .  much, much later, when the cicadas were droning in the darkness . . .  the grown-ups gathered together. 

Helmet Tag

It always seemed an impromptu moment to me, but it happened every 4th of July, so maybe it wasn’t.  The location varied (“maybe over there, by the side of the house to catch the breeze”) but we kids could hear the adults closing a lazy circle as the aluminum lawn chairs scraped across the concrete driveway. 

Lighters flared and more lemonade was passed around as we crept closer to the proceedings.   It was a fact, known by all kids and passed down through generations of kid-dom, that if we could just stay quiet—snuggle in close to the bare, sunburned legs of our mamas and daddys and stay still—they wouldn’t make us leave.  No one would tell us to go to bed.  Sometimes, if we waited long enough—lying there on the cool concrete in our damp bathing suits, smelling like chlorine and barbeque sauce—we got to hear our grandparents talk about the time “during the war”.

Quietly, they would “remember out loud” about crackly newscasts from Europe and victory gardens and the ways folks helped each other here at home.   They talked about places like Italy and France and Saipan.  I remember Saipan because that was where Timmy Underwood’s granddaddy had fought.  It was a neat word to me.  Saipan.  I remember saying it several times when I heard it just because it was so unusual.  Saipan.  Saipan.   It seemed dark and wet and mysterious. 

Sometimes, we fell asleep there with somebody’s grandma propping her worn out bare foot on our backs or legs as we listened to their soft, old voices drifting through the hot summer night, fireworks booming in the distance.  Saipan seemed far away.

It’s even farther away now.  Our sons, Austin and Adam lost their last grandparent when Polly’s mom—Patsy Jones—passed away.  The boys were eight and ten years old.  Today, they are eighteen and twenty.

The true stories of our Greatest Generation are fading now as their souls leave this earth.  There no longer seems to be time or even a desire for families and neighbors to gather and love and listen to each other.  Our backyards are barricaded with prefab fences, our homes don’t welcome visitors with front porches anymore, and our older citizens seem to be increasingly disregarded. 

Perhaps it is an oversight, but no matter; this vast “pushing aside” that society facilitates of those now in their eighth or ninth decade of life is a tragedy.  Not necessarily for them, but definitely for us. 

Without consideration for the consequences, we are allowing them to be silenced.  Our schools, our city councils, our churches—you and I—are looking the other way as the greatest generation of citizens our country has ever produced quietly take unique wisdom to their graves.  

It must be understood that these men and women possess a historical perspective that cannot be purchased at any price…and time is running out.  They have earned a level of wisdom and understanding that we ignore at our own peril.  Exactly what is that peril, one might ask?  Perhaps our greatest risk is a civil society in which to work and live and raise our families.

Do you think that is an overstatement?  Have you watched the news lately?  Many of the Greatest Generation who are still with us say that while things like kindness, sacrifice for others, and forgiveness are not yet extinct, they have certainly become “endangered.”

As an amateur historian, I know how easy it is for history itself to be rewritten. Those with any agenda at all can shift and change an event to make it fit the point of their reporting or their movies or books.   Knowing this, we cannot merely sit back and allow ourselves to be informed by those with narrowly focused agendas.  If we truly desire what is best for our nation, we must gather the courage to honestly pursue a unique perspective in today’s world—the unvarnished truth. 

Why is the “unvarnished truth” so important?”  How can a child of today gain the wisdom to create their best future if they lack context and perspective about the past?   To build a “best” future requires accurate context and proper perspective—two things that cannot be gained without taking into account the truth about our past.     

Does that mean we are obligated to sweep away undesirable memories?  No.  In fact, strong memories of where someone (or a group of people) went wrong are critical to not repeating those actions.  In 1945, when General Eisenhower was asked why he was sending photographers to document every aspect of what the liberators were finding in Nazi concentration camps, he replied, “Because one day, some son of a bitch is going to say that this never happened.”  He was right.  Despite the evidence, there are those who loudly deny the Holocaust took place…and there are those who quietly believe them.  

It is important to note that presented history in all forms—book, monument, article, or movie—and history’s purpose is not always to “honor.”  History—when presented in unvarnished truth also has great value to us as a cautionary tale. 

History, as the cliché goes, “is was it is” and should be related, heard, and seen as such.  To treat history any other way is to ignore its lessons.  In other words:  experience is not the best teacher.  Other people’s experience is the best teacher.  And that is, in fact, what history is:  other people’s experience.  

This Fourth of July, I urge us all to take advantage of the lives and wisdom in our midst before it is too late.  In our neighborhoods, lets endeavor to find the eighty or ninety-something year old Mr. Billy Stimpsons or Mr. Cliff Callaways or Violet Cowdens—who flew a P-51 Mustang during the war!  Lets give our children the opportunity to learn from the best among us. 

Let us encourage our older friends to tell our children what it still means to them when someone salutes our flag.  We need to ask them questions in front of our children.  “Were you scared?  Why did you fight for our country?  How did people act when you got home?”

Back to that “letter to the editor” I mentioned earlier.  I told you I’d had it framed.  I did that to inspire me.  To encourage me.  But really, I framed it for my boys. 

When I am gone, I want them to remember the truth about those who went before.  I want them to know that one can choose the way in which we live our lives, we can choose how we disagree, whether or not we hold a grudge or forgive…that we can choose to sacrifice time or money or life itself so that our families or another person whom we might never know, may prosper.  I want my boys to be grounded in the simple examples contained in the wisdom of their grandparents. 

That includes the words they choose to use as adults.

And that’s why I framed the letter to the editor.  It is just one tiny piece of truth that has been forgotten already.   One day, it will be important for my boys to read and understand.

You can read that letter here.

Dear Editor,

I am an 88-year-old veteran of World War II who served proudly with the 1st Marine Division in Okinawa and China.

As I viewed the recent series, “Pacific,” on HBO, I was angry and embarrassed at the constant use of the F-word while depicting Marines in battle.

I went into the front line in Okinawa on May 9, 1945, with the 1st Marine Division. The fighting could only be described as pure hell. I never heard the F-word.

We lost 70 of our 160 men in one push. I never heard the F-word. During six days of vicious fighting at Kunishi Ridge, I never heard the F-word.

It may be commonplace for people to use that word nowadays, but it was not commonplace during the 1940s (when most everyone went to church on Sundays). I resent the fact that modern movies shed a disrespectful light on the Marines and those of us who were actually there.

We have been called the “greatest generation” and given Honor Flights to Washington, D.C. We are not the generation who spoke the F-word in every other sentence — even when in battle.

Help me set the record straight for history.

H. PAUL BAILEY

Happy Fourth of July!

Your friend,

Andy


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