Sunday, April 17, 2011

In Praise of Veterans

It’s Not Memorial Day (but Thank You anyway)

It is nearly the anniversary of a small but important date in World War II, and that prompts me to stop and honor the US military personnel, past and present, who share my classrooms with me.

Because I teach online classes, some of my students are physically far from campus—sometimes really far. As in, serving overseas and yet still trying to stay up on their studies. God bless all of you. You give me hope and determination. Perhaps some of these folks are the people Paul Simon had in mind when he wrote his newest album, So Beautiful or So What.

This is a very spiritual album, filled with grace and redemption, and a meditative one too, as he thinks about the simple beauty of our lives, our planet. In the song “Getting Ready for Christmas Day,” the narrator says “I got a nephew in Iraq / It’s his third time back / But it’s ending up the way it began / . . . he’ll [ end up ] eating his Thanksgiving dinner / on some mountain top in Pakistan.”

Is it “good” English if somebody says, “I was due to rotate home but I got stop-lossed, so am still stuck here, all effed up”? Good English maybe yet sad reality. (There is a tradition for using the language of military slang in literature. T.S. Eliot in his landmark 1922 poem “The Wasteland” speaks of Londoners who were being de-mobbed, that is, being de-mobilized after World War I.)

Paul Simon’s song has layered into it a “call and response” African-American sermon from 1941, the year that World War Two started. My father served in this war, from the first day to the last, and yesterday in an old journal I found a note in my late father’s handwriting. Here it is:

My dad served in the Navy, and among his duties was to stand watch at night on an anti-aircraft battery. In the note he is remembering the time while on nighttime watch he saw the glowing sparks of the engines, as General Doolittle revved up his bombers on an adjacent aircraft carrier. This became known as the famous “Raid on Tokyo.” Some of the younger students may not recognize his name, though he is commemorated on Lancaster Blvd.

Discouraged by our losses at Pearl Harbor and the immediate months afterwards, the American people wanted some indication that we could win this war. Jimmy Doolittle provided it. In an audacious (almost suicidally brave) raid, he launched a flight of B-25 bombers from an aircraft carrier on a one-way flight to the Japanese main island of Honshu.

They took off from the U.S.S. Hornet, as my dad’s note recalls. You could—barely—get these medium bombers to take off from an aircraft carrier, but you could never land these planes back on any U.S. ship, so these were missions that would cross the Pacific, bomb Tokyo, and then try to reach friendly territory in Russia or China before running out of gas. Some crews made it, some died en route, and some were captured and executed. The mission’s success was not measured in bomb damage, but in morale: the raid electrified the American people. To his dying day, my father remembered hearing the engines start in the dark, and then watching the red glow of the engines as they revved up prior to full-throttle takeoff.

He served in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, and over the years, as chance allows, I have tried to visit some of the places he served. This picture below looks like a simple slice of paradise but instead marks another important piece of American history.

True, the water here is spa-tub warm, and the nearby coral reef swarms with beautiful fish. This is the island of Tinian. On this beach—the exact spot where this picture was taken— the U.S. Marines came ashore to capture this island from the Japanese. Out of sight to my right are the rusting remains of U.S. tanks, and behind me as this picture was taken are the concrete shells of Japanese bunkers. Later this island became an important airbase, and it was from this island that the Enola Gay took off in August, 1945, carrying the atom bomb destined for Hiroshima.

Tinian today, as the beach picture reveals, has been by-passed by development. There are some small and overgrown markers memorializing the war, and from the air, coming in by propeller plane, one can see the stripes of lighter jungle cut into the darker bits, marking where the old airfields have filled in.

It is easy to forget the sacrifices of the people who helped make us who we are, and as the anniversary of the Doolittle Raid approaches, I just wanted to take a moment to say thanks Dad, thanks veterans, thank you to all who believed enough to make the world a better place. Musician Elvis Costello says that Paul Simon’s new album “rejects the allure of fashionable darkness and the hypnosis of ignorance.” The music (Costello says) celebrates “the endurance of spirit and the persistence of love.”

On the anniversary of the raid I will put a flag out in front of my house and driving to or from the college, to or from Trader Joe’s, to or from picking up my kids, I will play the new CD, paying particular attention when a closing song says “something called me / from my sleep / [ it was ] love and blessings / simple kindness / ours to hold / but not to keep.”

1 comment:

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