This morning, I am looking at a “letter to the editor” that I cut from our local newspaper. It’s been professionally framed and I’m deciding where in my office it should hang. As I sit at my desk, looking for the perfect spot, I am 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.
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.
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 daddies 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. My boys, Austin and Adam, eight and ten, lost their last grandparent this year when Polly’s mom—Patsy Jones—passed away. 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 front yards don’t welcome visitors with porches anymore, and our old people have been silenced, taking their stories—historical perspective; lessons that could save our lives—to their graves.
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 movies or books or stories. Knowing this, my wife and I are purposing to insure that our boys grow up with a unique perspective in today’s society—the unvarnished truth. Without it, how, I ask you, can our children make a future that is bright and pure?
This Fourth of July, I urge us all to take advantage of the lives and wisdom in our very midst before it is too late. In our neighborhoods, let’s endeavor to find the eighty-something year old Billy Stimpsons or Cliff Callaways or Violet Cowdens (who flew a P-51 Mustang during the war) and give our children the opportunity to learn from the best among us.
Let us encourage our older friends to tell our kids what it still means to them when someone salutes our flag. We need to ask 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” which is resting for the moment beside my keyboard . . . At present, it has been prepared for my office. 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 and fight for that right if he must . . . that one 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 below.
Happy Fourth of July!
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
[first appeared June 10th, 2010]