Today is Veteran's Day. I am making a confession and a request for forgiveness.
Last week I was asked to read a list of names by a women's networking group in the community. Over the years, I have been asked to read a lot of things in public: fiction and non-fictional stories, tests, even prayers, but this list was different. It was a list of the 54 names of veterans who have died in our county---county, not country---in the past 18 months.
This women's group honors the veterans every year with a luncheon near Veteran's Day. They have a sub-group called M.O.M. for Mothers of the Military. Some of them have children in the service--some have lost children. The group sends packages and prayers to the enlisted. They told me 1800 veterans die each day in the country.
Sitting next to me at the luncheon was the husband of my old age, Bill, who is a Viet Nam vet. He was very surprised the first time he was invited to one of these luncheons--Viet Nam had been something he wanted to forget, just as most men want to forget wars when they return home. But, returning from service in Viet Nam, as we all should know, was not like returning from World War I or II or Korea to a warm welcome as conquering heroes. Viet Nam was the unpopular war America lost.
Bill joined the Navy for four years rather than be drafted into the Army. When I first met him he talked a lot about how much he hated those years. He and Bonnie had just gotten married and during the first three years of their marriage, he spent two of them at sea.
During this same time, Tom, the husband of my youth, and I were in Canada evading the draft. Tom, whose dad was in the Navy during World War II, always felt like he had failed to do something by avoiding service. In the late 60s we were hippies, risking our minds taking drugs--but when I think back on it, we were really looking for something worth dying for. We were sure it wasn't the Viet Nam war.
Until I met Bill I had encountered, perhaps, only three people who served in Viet Nam. Over 58,000 died. During those years I had no respect for the military. But, as life goes along, what we might called "enduring values" become more and more obvious; some of us realize them faster than others, I suppose. It's a "curly one," as they say Down Under--trying to figure out what is the good and right and proper thing to do in life.
In the early 70s when Tom and I began to travel and sing around the country, we began to do a lot of flying. I remember waiting for a flight and seeing a mother with her son, in uniform, sitting together. You could see the strain on the mother's face and a blank forward-looking stare on the son's. I thought in my heart, "You are a jerk to be in the military, putting your mother through this."
I told you, this is a confession and a request for forgiveness.
As we got ready to board the plane---as we all can do---I began to think about the plane crashing and my dying. There is nothing like the thought of your own death to get you down to the basics of wanting to be right with your Creator and fellow man. I quickly realized I had not been respecting this young man, this soldier who was willing to lay down his life for my right to think of him as a jerk. It was the beginning of a change for me.
Not only was Tom's dad, Robert I Greenburg, in the Navy, but so was my father, Henry Clay Pruitt. In fact, my dad was a disabled veteran. He was severely burned on his ship, the USS Nashville, in the Solomon Islands. He never really talked about being in a war--over the years a few things might be explained, but, mainly the remainder of his life--- which he was told would not be long---was about moving on, not looking back, fitting into life after the Great Depression, taking advantage of the GI Bill, becoming a teacher...and loving my mother.
He and my mother met in 1945, after he was released from the Naval hospital in San Diego where he spent two years recovering and while experiments for burn victims were tried out on him. My mother and father's love for each other had a sweetness to it that wasn't based on physical appearance. My dad lived to be 87 years old. His story is part of the recently released book, Humble Heroes, by Steve Bustin.
On television the other day, I heard Tom Brokaw, author of The Greatest Generation, wondering and commenting on the differences between my parents generation and the ones following. What was it that made such a difference, Brokaw wondered?
I remember thinking it had to do with our hearts being thankful for the little goodnesses of life, the daily gifts of love and family...and a safe and peaceful place to live, that we call our country or our homeland.
My parents generation, who grew up during the Great Depression, learned that the best things in life are free. Then, when they were grown, they had to go work and fight for the Creator-given rights of others in other lands, across the seas.
They weren't just the greatest generation, they were a blessed generation when they returned. The American economy recovered and rebounded, but, for some strange reason, this blessed generation gave birth to a generation---mine, the Baby Boomers---who would grow up post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a fractured, seemingly atomized world we wanted to probe and question and rebel against.
Did we want to see what would really endure? What couldn't be blasted away? Did we want to see if respect could endure disrespect? We didn't seem to understand duty and honor, enduring values being passed from generation to generation.
I'm sorry I didn't get it. I broke my parents' hearts and just about ruined my family.
One of the speakers at the luncheon was a Pearl Harbor survivor. His greatest joy, he told us, was to speak to young people in schools. They don't know much about history, he said. One girl asked him, "Pearl Harbor...? Who is she?" This man must be in his 80s. He stands tall and straight. His voice is strong and sure. His spirit is strong.
When Bill and I met face-to-face for the first time, just over three years ago---a widow and widower now, but formerly the Navy man and the hippie---we met in Hawaii. One of the things we did was go to see the Pearl Harbor Memorial. We had to stand at a distance. It seemed to us too holy to approach, to hard to comprehend.
We also went to the National Cemetary, the Punch Bowl, in Honolulu. My parents remains are interred there; they died within six weeks of each other. My dad, who never thought too highly of himself, was very honored by the Navy with the same 21-gun salute the soldiers at Fort Hood received yesterday. We didn't understand such ceremony, such honor for someone who had just wanted to live in peace and not look back in anger.
My sister and I stood with our children, my father's grandchildren--three young women and four young men--and watched in awe. Our sons, stood taller and more erect than they usually do; they were impressed by the honor guard standing at attention throughout. They haven't had to go to war.
Today, these children, the grandchildren of a sailor who almost died on the high seas, live in the continental United States, Hawaii---which was not even a state during World War II---and in New Zealand, a democratic country, part of the British Commonwealth, an ally, a nation in the South Pacific my father and America went to defend.
The National Cemetary officials told us that our dad, as a survivor of a war, was due this.
And so, today, I want to say "I'm sorry."
Dad, I'm sorry I didn't get it.
Tom, I'm sorry I didn't encourage you to be more faithful to your own father and your conscience.
Bill, I'm so glad you were faithful to your country and to your wife during a war--those were real victories.
America, I'm sorry it's taken me so long...but I am so thankful.
late bloomer, fontanelle of the baby boomers...full of hope, believing in life-long learning, mentoring, doors opening...mother of four, grandma of one: I cultivate gardens in both hemispheres of earth and brain...
ABOUT CANDY GREEN GUSTAVSON
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1.30.10 @ 12:25a
Candy, you are amazing. My new husband won an Emmy in 2005 for script writing in a documentary. Do you need some assistance with your project?