Thursday, April 24, 2014

Lest We Forget

"How do you predict the future?"

This question from my teacher in the 11th grade was our only homework on the first day of class: "Tell me how to predict the future."

"He's crazy," we said. "You can't predict the future. What a ridiculous assignment," we muttered with all the smugness of 16 year-olds. 

"You can predict the future, and I want you to tell me how tomorrow."

Turns out, Pete Aycock was right.

He was teaching a unit required for juniors in high school in Mississippi: Respect for the Flag.  My hunch is that they don't teach it anymore. When we arrived empty-handed in class the next morning, he revealed the answer to our conundrum: By studying the past. 

That's it? Was he kidding, I remember thinking.

But now it comes back from time to time. Like today with the Russian saber-rattling in the Ukraine and troops moving into Poland. Like Easter Sunday when reports leaked out about Jews who had leaflets thrust into their hands while leaving Passover services, leaflets telling them they had to register their whereabouts and their property with the government. 

And the beat goes on.

"If we don't learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it." Haven't we heard that somewhere before?
Memory allows us to create from the past a sense of meaning which we bring into the present.

A visit to the World War II Museum last week was timely for me. I got a lump in my throat upon entering and standing upon the train platform surrounded by 1940s memorabilia. The lump never went away. There were visitors in uniform, others touring in VFW hats and wheelchairs, volunteers warmly greeting all who entered.  The only thing that surprised me there was the large number of really young people who came to see what all of the fuss was about. I am thankful for them--and for us--for those not yet born in 1944 who continue to hear the story and want to understand the seminal event of the last century that changed the world as we know it. Bold statement, yes, but it is not original with me. 

Failure to study this part of our past may lead the young to believe that drive-through burgers, cell phones, Snapchat, and facebook are really important things. Grand themes of liberty, service and sacrifice don't have skin on them...yet. We don't know what we have until we've lost it comes to mind.

For generations never deprived of religious liberty, for example, it's easy to turn up our noses at religion in general. And they have--we have--as a nation. Our protection of religious freedom among essential individual liberties is changing downgrading it into a tepid side dish on the American buffet.

But on the heels of that WWII Museum visit, I witnessed a flagpole on the beach. Written beneath it in the sand was VFW 4139. "What's VFW?" the 24 year- old beside me asked. Mental note: they don't teach that anymore.

It took me back. I had limited personal contact with the VFW. As a young teen in the late 60s and early 70s I answered the call from Mattie Lou Jolly to sell poppies for the VFW. My friends including Mattie Lou's niece and I collected money for veterans and pinned a red crepe paper poppy onto the lapel of the always-generous donors in Monticello. But a younger generation may have no contact with the VFW and would not know what a veteran of foreign wars is if they don't study the past. A younger generation also did not have Mrs. Isaac Newton for English who had her students learn "In Flanders Field where the poppies grow beneath the crosses, row on row...". Who knows: maybe the Gettysburg Address and the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution have all gone the way of the Pledge to the Flag--mere relics of history no one says anymore? 

I understand the need to equip a populace for a changing world in 2014. Some things must fall by the wayside to make room for each new generation's desire for change and freedom from the old ways. But calling it change and freedom does not make it so; someone must pay a price. Always.

Memory gives a perspective which informs our decision-making that comes only from history and experience.

With each passing day our nation's leaders are distancing themselves from WWII and its hard-fought lessons. Presently our commander-in-chief and the vice president have no military experience, and fewer than 20% of congressional members are veterans. Military experience was once practically a requirement for election. When fewer than 7% of Americans are veterans now, it changes the shape of things to be sure.

The drumbeats of war and the sights of planes invading airspace continue this week in 2014. Had we only bought a little time with all that bloodshed in WWII? Or must we learn our own lessons--one generation at a time--and repeat the same mistakes to our detriment?

It's an old story, this human condition and the rise and fall of civilizations. But we must keep telling it. 

The way to predict the future is by studying the past. And some things, I suppose, never change.