When I think about Veterans Day, the first thought that enters my head is context, and by that I mean the timeframe and the events within that timeframe that have shaped my own particular perceptions. Since I’m fast approaching 50, I wonder how different my perspective is from someone who would have been nearly fifty at the time I was born. As I consider the possibilities, the contrast seems substantial.
I was born in 1958, which means my imagined predecessor would have been born in 1908, about the time my grandparents were born, .all of them in Italy. I have vivid memories of my grandmother relating her story of physically fighting with her father, when she was just seventeen, to keep him from taking the money that she had saved to pay her way to America. Nothing meant more to here than getting to the United States, and she won that battle and soon completed her dream to come to America.
At 17, I was still in high school. I came of age during the anti-war movement and during the Watergate scandal, low points by comparison. Before that, my first vivid memory, as a five-year-old child, was the day JFK was assassinated. I knew something monumental had occurred because I witnessed my mom crying when my dad and I returned from Safeway. As I see our kitchen in my head, there is a fog of darkness that mutes all the colors. Nonetheless, I learned what love of country meant that fateful day.
I became obsessed with politics because I sensed this country was about great leadership and great people. I followed Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign and I remember the night of the California primary. I stayed up as late as my mom and dad would let me, but the results weren’t final so I went to bed not knowing if he had won. When I awoke the next morning, I raced downstairs and turned on the television hoping to see that RFK had won, only to find out that he had been assassinated.
When I was in my early 20s, I used to tell friends that what America needed was a ticker-tape parade. I’m not sure what made me say as much but in retrospect I think those predecessors that had lived through the depression and two world wars had shaped my life and taught me, by example, the importance of patriotism. Though my own experiences with American history seemed in conflict by comparison, I sensed the goodness and greatness that went before and in my own naïve way, I sought to connect the past with the future.
Today, I’m still waiting for that ticker-tape parade. In between then and now, America has fought a few conflicts and many of those predecessors that influenced my life and told me countless stories of America’s greatness have passed away. I think about my Uncle Benny who landed on Omaha Beach and, though he’s gone now, I can hear him telling the story of how the first person he encountered that day was a friend from our hometown and how glad he was to share a foxhole with a familiar face. I think about my dad, who to this day remembers his brother’s serial numbers because his mom would need to write those numbers on her letters to his brothers overseas during World War II.
My nearly 50 years here in America are not the same as the 50 years lived by those before me. While I’ve witnessed war and conflict, it pales in comparison to their experiences, but it doesn’t matter. Those who served then and those who serve now remain connected. They all serve the country they love and they do so with honor and they deserve our thanks and our admiration. Today’s soldiers will tell their stories to their children and in 50 years those children will once again recount fond memories of great people who had the courage to risk their lives so that this uniquely American story can continue to be told.
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