Monday, May 25, 2009

Quote of the Day (Karl Shapiro, on Mourning the Military Dead)

“The time to mourn is short that best becomes
The military dead. We lift and fold the flag,
Lay bare the coffin with its written tag,
And march away. Behind, four others wait
To lift the box, the heaviest of loads.
The anesthetic afternoon benumbs,
Sickens our senses, forces back our talk.
We know that others on tomorrow's roads
Will fall, ourselves perhaps, the man beside,
Over the world the threatened, all who walk.”—Karl Shapiro, “Elegy for a Dead Soldier,” in The American Reader: Words That Moved a Nation, edited by Diane Ravitch (2000)

“Ever since the South Pacific,” one of my uncles told me a few years ago, “I’ve felt that every day I’ve been on borrowed time.”

I--and nearly everyone I know, my age or younger--am fortunate not to have had the kind of feeling that my uncle—who spent World War II on a PT boat—shared with the rest of the Greatest Generation that saved half the world from totalitarianism. Poet Karl Shapiro served as a medical corps clerk in the same theater of that enormous conflict as my uncle. He arrived back stateside having just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for V-Letter and Other Poems, in which “Elegy for a Dead Soldier” first appeared.

We honor the fallen comrades such as those described by Shapiro today with Memorial Day parades across the country, including one in my hometown of Englewood, N.J. (where I took the photo accompanying this post). These events provide opportunities for all kinds of people to be seen in a civic setting—politicians, city workers, ambulance corps volunteers, church workers—but veterans take center stage, as they should.

It’s easy to forget just how much such remembrances used to mean to communities such as mine. In World War II, the U.S. lost 9 soldiers per 1,000 annum; in World War I; in the Civil War (in the aftermath of which began our modern Memorial Day observances), 21.3 and 23 for the North and South, respectively.

A couple of years ago, reading an obituary of a neighbor who had moved away nearly three decades ago, I discovered that he had been one of the “tin can sailors” who had been involved in some of the most desperate combat of World War II, at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

My neighbor had never breathed a word to me about it, but really, like most young kids at the time, I doubt this fact would have made much of an impression on me at the time. Today, if he were still alive, I would try to find out every detail of the battle he could comfortably tell me.

The Greatest Generation is now fading from the scene. Their stories, rich and fascinating, deserve to be preserved while that’s still possible. Oral history provides an excellent means of doing so.

One academic who has made a major contribution to the field is Professor Erin McCarthy of Columbia College Chicago. Several years ago, I took an excellent summer course on oral history with her at the Chautauqua Institution. I urge any of my readers who knows a veteran whose story should be preserved to contact her here.

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