Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Pearl Harbor Birthday Wish

December 7, 2016

Today is my birthday.

I tell you this not to elicit Facebook or other birthday greetings (as pleasant and appreciated as they are) but because this date also commemorates the 75th anniversary of a fateful day in our country’s history -- the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Each birthday, though there have been many happy ones, carries the ghost, the shadow, of what happened there as TV spots and newspaper blurbs recall December 7, 1941.

This devastating attack (2,500 killed, 1,000 wounded) occurred after the U.S. refused to continue trading iron and gasoline to Japan which sorely needed them to continue to execute its conflict with China. The magnitude of the death and destruction ... the surprise raid ... left the United States with little choice but to abandon its isolationist policy and join World War II already in progress.

My earliest memory, after being primed for a birthday celebration, was to see my mother crying. This was supposed to be a happy day. Clearly it was not. A big, wooden, domed radio with a blue star-spangled dial, once so magical, now spewed forth a series of staticky announcements and became an instrument of fright and tears. Other adults gathered around and a tiny birthday cake with three pink candles sat forgotten and forlorn on the round oak table.

I was too young to understand then and for several years to come. My brother and I played with sticks and stones and rope swings. We played tag and Red Rover, hide-and-seek ... toys were scarce. Only toward the end of the war when we went to Saturday-afternoon matinees and were a captive audience to the dramatic newsreels of tanks and bombs (no changing channels here) did I comprehend that the bits of tin foil we were saving from sticks of gum were for the "war effort" and what the magnitude of that effort was. Victory gardens sprouted again as they had in World War I. Blackout drills were held in homes and schools. Families coalesced as grandparents and older siblings took on parenting roles while mothers went to work and fathers were conscripted into military service.

Perhaps the thing I remember most is rationing. I was old enough to walk to the corner store with the thin leather wallet containing the tiny perforated stamps that I could exchange for the family's supply of sugar and coffee. I never saw my normally placid mother so angry as when my brother and I ruined a whole pound of rationed coffee by contaminating it with every dark colored spice we could find in the cupboard (cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg) in an ill-conceived April Fools’ Day joke. My mother's ire was no joke as she went without her morning coffee for two weeks -- her allotment had been spoiled and there was no getting more at any price.

If I had the ability to create a montage here, I would show you a split-screen documentary of the years from 1941 to 2016. One half would depict the country in all its progress (television, microwave ovens, the moon landing, and computers), conflicts (Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, 9/11) and social movements (Civil Rights and school desegregation, hippies, woman's liberation). The other half would show the chapters of my personal life: education, military service (where I met my husband), marriage, children, moving to Vermont to follow a dream, advancing to grandparenthood and the joy of great-grandparenting.

Oddly enough, both halves merge at about the same place. The two split-screens would become one where people from all walks of life started furiously and furtively poking their fingers and drumming their thumbs on the surface of tiny devices that contained all the knowledge of the world. The Encyclopedia Britannica, once a prized family possession, became nothing more than a doorstop, castoff relics that not even libraries would take in. Traditional modes of communication like writing letters and placing telephone calls have been outpaced by the expediency of e-mails and text messages. From The Donald's tweets to Hillary's e-mails, the media has climbed on board with the power of fast and brief communication and its fearsome capacity to affect us.

Relationships, personal and political, are made or broken in a few twitches of spastic digits and family members text each other across the dinner table. It is a curious phenomenon that has become as pervasive throughout the country as it has in our personal lives. We have indeed crossed the Rubicon (yes, I Googled it to make sure my understanding was correct) when it comes to technology. Good or bad, We the People are left to cope with the advances we have made.

We are now both literally and figuratively at arm’s-length from each other -- and especially from our troops. In World War II, the entire civilian population was involved through rationing, conserving, saving and guarding against the possibility of attack on U.S. soil. So why are we now so horribly disconnected now when we have the ability to be more connected than ever?

As my latest birthday cake – crammed with enough candles to burn a house down -- is being prepared, we as a country are trying desperately to figure out how best to honor and connect with the few remaining military men and women from that long-ago conflict. Would they even look at the memes passed through the social media channels – the ones that show a flag waving against the silhouette of a soldier in the background and a curly script in the foreground that says: "Thank You," (as well-intentioned and appreciated as they are)?

There has to be something more – and better -- than that.

Those aging veterans didn't have PTSD -- but there was an abundance of "shellshock." They endured and suffered to bring you and me the power to act as we think or say what we want without hindrance or restraint -- the very dictionary definition of freedom. We must, simply must, guard and respect those freedoms and use them with accountability for they came at a very steep price.

So here’s an idea: Why not use that clever little device just off the end of your fingertips to Google: "How to honor a veteran"? You’ll instantly be served up hundreds of ideas from providing a ride to buying a meal to arranging for the adoption of a companion dog. The one I like best? Listen to their stories; story-telling is a connectedness like no other. And if you listen to one vet's stories, in a sense, you have listened to them all ... the fear, the deprivation, camaraderie, courage and deep longing for peace.

And do it now -- don't wait for next Veteran’s Day to roll around or even next Memorial Day. And don't, for heaven's sake, wait 75 years! 

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