CONNECTIONS: Lost lessons from the past

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By Tuesday, Dec 26 Viewpoints  9 Comments
Grandpa was at Pearl Harbor as a civilian – too old to enlist. However, he was a soldier in World War I. He was 6 foot 4 inches tall; here he is on duty in World War I.

Every December I remember my grandfather. My grandfather was at Pearl Harbor Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, “a date that will live in infamy.” Sometime between 7:53 a.m. and 9:55 a.m., he was hit by shrapnel – nasty chunks of metal packed into bombs.

In 1941 he was 50 years old. He was a civilian aviation and ship repairman at the Navy Shipyards Shop 70. When the bombs started to fall, the men of Shop 70 made stretchers and painted big red crosses on the tops of hospitals and trucks transporting the wounded. It was no use; bombs and guns hit the red crosses as readily as ships and barracks. In the end, more than 900 at Pearl Harbor were injured or killed and 18 ships were hit.

Grandpa wasn’t killed. He was treated and released. He remained at Pearl Harbor until 1945. In that time, 15 of the 18 ships hit were repaired and set out to sea.

From Pearl Harbor, my grandfather wrote a letter to me, “his first and only grandchild.” In the letter he enclosed a U.S. savings bond and the piece of shrapnel the doctors removed from his body. The letter said, “One day, you in your first childhood and Grandma and I in our second childhood, will play by the lake shore.” We never did.

When the war was over, my grandfather was sent home to die. It wasn’t the shrapnel, it was the cancer the doctors discovered while treating his wounds. He stayed at his post as long as he could. For almost four years, he did his job, fighting the cancer while helping to fight the war. I only saw him once, and I never heard his voice. Those three things – the letter, the piece of shrapnel and the United States savings bond – are all I have from my grandfather.

I write about history; however, now I am moved to write about us here and now. It is Grandpa’s letter. It is a remarkable letter, filled with love for, and a deep belief in, the future United States of America. His generation will win the war, he wrote, and my generation will know how to build a better world in peace. I wonder if he would be proud of what we have done.

Interesting that, in every sentence of his letter, he talks about America and Americans as “we.” Perhaps a strong external enemy pressed them together and created unity, but it is still alarming that, today, America has a stronger sense of “us and them” than “we”: American Democrats v. American Republicans, American Blacks v. American Whites or Hispanics, American rich v. American poor.

Grandfather had a sense of ability and optimism. No one had to tell him, “Yes, we can”; he knew he and his fellow Americans could. Interesting that we now need experts from outside our communities to tell us what good is. We need a poll to tell us how we feel and what we believe. We need pundits to tell us what the speech we just heard or the legislation just passed really means.

Grandfather knew good from evil, right from wrong, and he knew what the problem was. He had watched it unfold. It was the concentration of power and wealth in a few hands; the erosion of democracy and the reversion to oligarchy or worse. He knew concentration of power, wealth or resources undermined the rights and the opportunities of the many. He didn’t like that. He wanted to hold onto his rights and had no fear of exercising his responsibilities. Do we? How peculiar that we say nothing about giving corporations 99 percent of the wealth and then giving them the right of freedom of speech – a right reserved for people. We merely watch as they – at home and abroad – use both to influence not just elections, but truth itself. Money is so tempting that the wishes of the people are overridden – voices muffled, common sense abandoned.

Things were clear to my grandfather; they are no longer clear to us. The more ways we invent to communicate, the less we are able to say: communication is reduced to 140 characters and 30-second soundbites. The more we talk, the fewer listen. People shop for outlets and individuals who speak their beliefs and listen only to them. The result is that, in this information age, we are startlingly uninformed.

For me, the legacy of Pearl Harbor is reduced to a chunk of shrapnel, a United States savings bond, and a letter; but, to all Americans, the legacy is much greater than that – don’t waste it. Grandpa’s generation did what they said they would. They fought and bled and won the war. Did we know how to build a better world in peace? I wonder if he would be proud of what we have done.


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9 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Jack Trowill/Berkshire Scenic Railway Museum says:

    Really nice article from Carole, as usual!!

    I was 7 on Dec. 7, 1941, and I still remember reading the big headlines in the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer (or was it the Bulletin?) about the attack! I followed the war’s progress from then until its conclusion, and still have a lot of memorabilia that I collected over the four years.

    Jack

  2. Hester says:

    Beautifully said, Carole.

  3. Carl Stewart says:

    For someone who fancies herself a historian, Ms. Owens has a distinctly unhistoric view of this country’s relatively recent past. Indeed there was a “we” for Grandpa, but only if he was white, male, and Protestant. Lynchings, primarily of black Americans, were still common in the 1930s and 40s, and Grandpa’s armed forces at the time of Pearl Harbor were strictly segregated. Japanese-Americans were herded into internment camps solely because of their national origin. Most Native Americans lived segregated lives in reservations. Does Ms. Owens really believe that the “us and them” of today was a universal “we” back in Grandpa’s day? There were no Italo-Americans or Irish-Americans then; there were only “dagos,” “micks,” “kikes,” etc. Charles Lindbergh, an open and virulent anti-Semite and racist, was seriously considered to be an attractive potential Presidential candidate. This country, with full knowledge of the systematic extermination of the Jewish population of Europe, turned away children trying to escape the horrors of the Third Reich. Women were effectively denied access to the law, medicine, and positions of management in virtually all of the American power structure. And the list goes on and on. The primary reason for the success of Donald Trump last year was that much of white America was unhappy with the changing demographic of this country. Having had to bear the indignity of a black man sitting in the White House for 8 years, many voters yearned for a return to the past that Grandpa knew.

    1. Steve Farina says:

      Carl, you really believe President Trump won because President Obama is black? Huh, I would have taken you for the “Russian Influence” conspiracy theory type…LOL

      1. Mike says:

        Steve Farina conveniently fails to respond to the long list of facts that Carl cites in his response. Carl is entitled to his opinion, which he reserves for the last sentence. Steve is within reason to disagree with that of course, but unless he subscribes to the ‘alternative facts’ doctrine of our current administration, the facts remain just that….facts.

  4. Susan P. Bachelder says:

    Mr. Stewart writes what he chooses to call the “cold hard truth”. What we all need to wake up and pay attention to – even poor deluded Ms. Owens, who has turned a sharp and often cynical eye on our local foibles, gently reminding us of the pompous and bombastic men who have peopled the Berkshires in the past – and apparently still do. Mr. Stewart apparently prefers residing in that loveless, godless, graceless hateful place he chooses to let dominate his view of the world. The bitter and cynical mindset that drives those reading Breitbart while attempting to convince us this is the reality of our world. It happened with McCarthy – it is happening now. I for one am insulted that you would dare to demean the personal heroism of those Americans who served for the ideals that we, maybe imperfectly, strive to achieve. Thank goodness that today is the 27th – and the sun moves again to triumph over darkness and moves towards the equinox. A metaphor I hope you can appreciate if not participate in.

  5. Susan P. Bachelder says:

    Mr. Stewart’s hard, mean spirited, godless and vicious view of the world is a vision of reality that was historically shared by the likes of Sen. McCarthy and is presently held by Breitbart readers to inspire the worst. Ms. Owens who has written some wonderful history of our region and her clear and gently cynical view of the bombastic men who have peopled the Berkshires in the past still seem to resonate. What I realize should really concern me, and anyone in Berkshire county, is that Mr. Stewart has been a member of the SBRSD school committee and continues to insinuate himself and his attitudes into the education of our children on a county level with his participation on the Task Force. I think the members of the Task Force and all of those who vote for school committee members should take a close look at whether this is the vision we need to direct the education of our region.

    1. Carl Stewart says:

      Ms. Bachelder’s criticism of me is, as she and others know, has absolutely nothing to do with what I wrote. Her animus is entirely personal and is based on our difference of opinion on the future and value of the Egremont School as a school qua school. Her 2nd message somewhat clarifies this…with emphasis on the word “somewhat.” I have been a member of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District school committee for 8 years, the Bershire County Education Task Force for 3, and that should be sufficient evidence that Ms. Bachelder’s view of me is a minority one. On the other hand, all that she has done for Berkshire County public education during that time period is to act as a part-time crossing guard at the aforementioned school in her town of Egremont. Finally, Ms. Bachelder supposedly quotes me as stating the “cold, hard truth,” but even the most cursory reading of my above comment will show that I said no such thing. But truth is apparently not particularly important to Ms. Bachelder, if it does not serve her invective.

  6. Mike says:

    Susan, perhaps you should resolve not to resort to ad hominem attacks in 2018…

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