Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Those Who Gave All

A few years back, my wife and I had a couple of younger friends over for dinner. It was the first time they’d been in our home and they requested a tour. On the upper level hallway of our four-level home, there’s an area we call the Wall of Fame. Pictures of various family members, graduations, weddings, that sort of thing. It’s a big wall and there are a lot of pictures.

Among them are old photos of my dad and my wife’s dad, in their WW2 uniforms. There’s a picture of my Aunt Virginia in her WW2 WAVES uniform. During the big war, Aunt Virginia – one of five sisters – said “we don’t have any men in our family to help win this war, so I’m going, and that’s all there is too it”. There’s a picture of my dad's brother, Uncle John, in his Army uniform. He was a spy during the WW2 era, although back then they just said “he’s attached to OSS”. That stood for “Office of Strategic Services”, which became the CIA. He wouldn’t tell us where he served, but he spoke Japanese, which might have been a clue.

Viewing the pictures, our young friends said “oh, so you come from a military family!” No, not really, we said. Back then, during the big war, just about every family in America had a member who served in the armed forces. We explained that it’s typical for us baby-boomers to have close family members who did their duty and came home from the big war.

For 407 thousand American families, there was a family member who did not come home from the war, a family member who lost their life. 60 million people died in WW2, which was about 3% of the population of our planet at that time.

The photo at the top of this post is from an unknown source; it made its way around the internet yesterday, Memorial Day. I imagine it to be a young woman who lost her husband in one of the wars we have going now. It’s an incredibly sad photo.  She’s holding the folded flag presented to her by a military officer at the funeral, “with the thanks of a grateful nation” while she’s bent over the coffin in grief.

Here’s another photo that got a lot of exposure on the internet yesterday; a photo of a young mother grieving at the grave of her 19-year-old son who was killed in action in Iraq five years ago.

I grew up at a time when probably a third or more of the adult men in my small village had worn the uniform of their nation during the big war. Now, with the all-volunteer army, only a small fraction of one percent of our nation is serving in the military.

Younger people today are disconnected from the wars their national leaders have gotten us involved in. They may know somebody from their high school class who served in Afghanistan or Iraq; odds are strong they don’t know anyone who was killed in action in either of those nations.  Since 2001, about 7 thousand of our soldiers and an equal number of civilian contractors have been killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So the odds are pretty small that anyone in America actually knew someone who was killed in action since a small band of Saudi Arabians flew airplanes into our buildings.

I think it’s that disconnect – being aware that many of our troops are dying in these seemingly endless wars, but not actually knowing any person who has died in action, or a family which has lost a member – that has allowed our leaders to continue these wars.

Vietnam was the war of my era, a war that claimed the lives of 58-thousand American troops. My kids have been given the “Viet Nam Death Tour” many, many times when they were younger. Every time we’d drive from our home in Madison up to visit my family in the Fox Valley, as we got close to my small hometown of Hortonville, I’d point out the home of one of my high school classmates who was killed in that war. There are four of them. Guys I went to school with who lost their lives in Vietnam.

And that’s not counting my grade school friend Tommy Armitage, who was drafted into the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War and gave his life to save four other Marines by throwing himself onto a Viet Cong hand grenade in February of 1969, while I was drinking beer and talking smart in college.

Having those direct connections to war deaths was one of the main reasons my generation rose up against the war machine and stopped it. We were losing a pointless war and too many of our friends were getting killed in it.

It’s also why I get my Irish up when I see so many posts on social media and hear so many TV folks talk about how Memorial Day is a day to honor “all our brave service men and women”. No, it’s not. That’s Veterans Day. Memorial Day is to honor the men and women who paid the ultimate price. They deserve a day of their own, and I’ll take any bet on whether those serving right now agree with me that their day is Veteran’s Day, and Memorial Day is to honor those who gave all.

God bless all those who gave their lives doing what our nation asked them to do; and thanks to those who volunteered to put on the uniform and go where our nation ordered them to go.

I think if today’s young people had the kind of personal connection to war that my generation and the generation before mine did, things would be different.
Very different.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Iowans Pull Together Following Lake City Twister

My guess is the Class of 2015 at South Central Calhoun High School in Lake City, Iowa, will be known as “the tornado class”. On Sunday evening May 10th around 7:30, an F-1 tornado dropped out of the sky on the far west end of Lake City, tore the roof right off the high school, and then carved a path of destruction across several residential blocks in the western Iowa community.

My good friend and fellow tuba player Tom Plummer is the band director at the high school, and he lives about 6 blocks from the school. In the picture at the top of this post, taken by the Iowa Department of Public Safety the morning after the twister, you can see the damage done to the school. On the left side of the photo, you  can see an SUV hooked to a big white trailer between two of the buildings. The building to the right of the SUV and trailer is Tom’s new band room, which was built just a few years ago.  The twister did no damage to that part of the school.

Above is another shot of some of the damage the twister did.

Tom and I have established a tradition. Each year in June, we pick a weekend that works, and I spend 3 or 4 days as a guest in Tom’s home. We drink a little beer, watch a little baseball, and play a lot of polka music. Lake City is a small community of about 17-hundred folks, very much like my small hometown of Hortonville, Wisconsin – which was also hit by a tornado a year ago. So I’ve got a special affinity for Lake City.

And I’ve got a special affinity for Iowans. My two kids (step-children, if you’re one of those people to whom biology matters) were born in Burlington, Iowa in the mid-80’s. I’ve always thought their Hawkeye heritage helped give them a pragmatic approach to life: sensible, down-to-earth, the harder I work, the luckier I get -you get the idea.

I’ve written before about my June weekends at Tom’s house in Lake City. Last year, I based the entire essay on the wonderful, friendly, helpful Iowans I encountered on my journey from Madison to Lake City. It’s here if you want to read it when you have time.

As usual, I digress.

Back to the Lake City tornado, and how those Iowans dealt with it. Because of my many years in southern California and many more in Wisconsin, I’ve been through earthquakes (4 of them) and tornadoes (about 10, I think). Both are very powerful forces of nature, and both will terrify you if you’re close to either.

Shortly after the tornado hit Lake City Sunday evening, Tom posted on Facebook that he was OK, and he put up some pictures of the wreckage in his neighborhood. I didn’t want to call him or text him; I figured he’d be plenty busy dealing with concerned family, and with his professional responsibilities as a teacher at the high school the tornado had just hit.
The high school is the heart of a small community. At one point or another, just about everybody is directly involved in something at the high school: a graduation, a concert or play; a sporting event; perhaps a civic meeting. The high school’s identity is the town’s identity, because it’s a reflection of the people who live there, pay their taxes there, and send their kids there.

When a small-town high school is rendered unusable by a natural disaster, the entire community is affected. Within a couple days of the disaster, these Iowans – who came together immediately to deal with the pressing problem of having no high school – had the power back on, much of the community cleaned up, and had made difficult decisions about the immediately pressing issues of where to hold classes, how to deal with the disruption of the school calendar right at the end of the school year, and a million other details.
If you have time, the local newspaper wrote a great article about this coming-together and decision-making. The article is linked here.

What these folks did, without arguing about who was in charge, who had jurisdiction, who had authority to do what, was really remarkable: everybody just pitched in and said “how can I help?” If you read the newspaper article, you’ll learn that Lake City’s churches and civic organizations immediately stepped up to volunteer spaces to serve as temporary classrooms.

The Iowa Corn Growers Association volunteered to bring in lunches for the school kids. The school board met, and without a long, drawn-out debate, made decisions about how to deal with the problems dealt them, when to set graduation, where to have it, and what would happen between now and then.

They dealt with bids for the contractor who’d put the new roof on, and decided while they were at it how to most efficiently coordinate the district’s plans for improving wi-fi and air conditioning in the school. They said they might have to put off a parking lot repaving project for a year or so because of the need to deal with the situation the tornado created.
And they did it all in about 72 hours.  In Madison, it probably would have taken four months, three new committees, and thousands of man-hours of debate, arguing, and ox-goring to make half as many decisions.

The whole nation could learn a good lesson from observing how these small-town Iowans faced and dealt with their problems; how so many people and institutions stepped up immediately with that “how can we help” attitude.

Good job, Lake City, in showing the rest of the world how it’s done.  I can’t wait to visit again, in a few weeks, and see how you’re coming along.