Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Quote of the Day (Benjamin Patton, Descendant of Heroes, on Preserving Family History)

“Every family has a story, and every member's story is worth preserving—certainly for the living family, but even more so for future generations. Experiencing history through the lens of another person's life can offer unexpected insight into your own. It gets you to think: What sort of mark will I make? How will I be remembered?”—Benjamin W. Patton, “Recovered Ground: Gen. George S. Patton’s Grandson Finds His Calling in the Ashes of His Father’s Journals,” Smithsonian, June 2009

Before I go any further, a word about the photo.

It’s not who you expected, was it? But George S. Patton Jr.—“Old Blood and Guts”—has been so endlessly discussed—everything from celebrated to dissected—that there’s not much I could say about him that many of you don’t already know.

His namesake and only son, rather—the father of the man who wrote the words above—is, however, another matter. He was every bit the proud warrior that his father was, but, because he fought in one war that is largely forgotten and another that so many wish could be because of its resulting anguish and futility, the great bulk of the American public know little if anything about him.

Anyone interested not only in military but family history should hunt down Benjamin Patton’s essay in the new issue of Smithsonian. It seamlessly weaves the story of perhaps the most glorious family in American military history with the author’s own journey of self-discovery—and it lays out, simply but eloquently, the importance of preserving memories, even if your own family as not as celebrated as the Pattons.

In case you’re wondering: yes, the article does have a few glimpses of the great WWII hero (e.g., building a motorboat with his son in the family garage), as well as the author’s great-great-grandfather, a Confederate colonel whose gold coin deflected a bullet and saved him to fight another day.

But the surprise here—for many of us, anyway—is Benjamin’s father, a hero of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. This Patton won the Purple Heart and saw more frontline combat action than his father. This Patton, not his father, possessed a gravely voice that reminded many of the Oscar-winning actor George C. Scott. This Patton had a daughter who embarked on a career as unmartial as you could get: a Benedictine nun.

A post of mine last week advocated oral histories for aging soldiers. Much of Benjamin Patton’s work is designed to accomplish much the same purpose, though he arrived at this career in a circuitous fashion.

By his own admission a bit at sea growing up, with no wish to join the family trade, Benjamin took up taping interviews to raise his father’s spirits following a disastrous fire in the family basement that consumed precious journals. When that project was finished, other people—many the children of veterans—conducted him about preserving their relatives’ memories, launching him on his current career as a producer and film educator.

The most fascinating story I ever heard about Patton the WWII hero was that, as a young man, he spent hours walking around the French countryside, learning every detail of the terrain, convinced that in a future campaign this would come in handy. It took more than a quarter-century, but he was proved correct.

It’s a story about the unusual paths we take to our destinies—something that his grandson has reenacted, in captivating detail, in this short, affectionate and moving memoir.

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