English department chair Bill McMann shares his personal memories of Veterans' Day.
This week our nation celebrated Veterans’ Day, a day to honor those who served in the United States Armed Forces in times of war. For me, Veterans’ Day has always been a time for remembrance and reflection, a time to think back on how life used to be for me and my generation. And as each Veterans’ Day nears, I am especially aware that this Chapel was built for and dedicated to the memory of those Peddie alums, all a generation older than I, who died in World War II. You can see their faces – most of them in their official Army or Navy photographs (everyone in the service has one) – hanging on the walls in the foyer. As you leave today, take a moment just to glance at them – notice how many there are – and remember that they too once attended classes here; that they too once lived in some of the same dorms you are living in; and that they too once wore the same blue and gold colors on the athletic fields.
This idea of honoring veterans didn’t seem at all strange to us kids, who were living lives right out of our Dick and Jane Readers. Dads worked, moms kept house; three kids, a dog and a cat to each of our identical Cape Cod cottages. Some twelve years after the end of World War II, we were surrounded by reminders of that great conflict.
We all watched television shows like Victory at Sea, the story of how the Navy won WWII, and The Big Picture, which was the Army’s version of how it had defeated facism in Europe and was even then standing guard against the dangers of communism. Every dad in the neighborhood was himself a veteran: Cal Burke next door had gone ashore at Normandy the day after D-day; Bruce Coombs across the street served on a PT boat; Bob Ericson in back of our house drove a jeep for the Army; Jerry Wilkins was the co-pilot of a B-25 bomber; Art Trautlein was an Army seargant; and Bob Still came home with a “war bride,” that is, a German woman he married while he was in the occupation army. Even the only house without a male head-of-household had a gold star hanging in its window, indicating that Mrs. Meek’s son had been killed in the war.
And the games we played often seemed to be imitations of our Dads’ stories or what we had seen on that TV show, The Big Picture. Richie Trautlein’s dad had all of his old Army field gear in the basement, so we’d borrow it and go off to the woods, pitch our Army surplus pup-tent, dig foxholes with a genuine Army entrenching tool (That’s a fold-up shovel to you civilians), drink Kool-Aid out of a genuine Army canteen, and eat cold spam and beans out of a real Army mess kit – all the time pretending that we were defending our neighborhood against imminent attack. Of course, all the time, we were wearing parts of our dads’ old uniforms, with the impossibly long sleeves and pant legs rolled up, and with too-large service caps drooping over our eyes. And we had proudly pinned our fathers’ medals and decorations to our too-large uniforms, and hung their dog tags around our necks.
As good as Richie’s dad’s army gear was and our own dad’s medals – not to mention the real Nazi flags some of us had borrowed from our dads – there were two other items that we had access to that seemed even more valuable to us, in ways that only small boys can revere military objects. Bruce Wilkins had a photograph of his dad’s B-25 in flight with the names of all the crew written on it next to their positions on the plane. To our way of thinking, his dad had by far the most glamorous job in the war. And in my basement, hanging from an overhead beam, was the Japanese bayonet my father had brought home from the war. On its long, black scabbard, he had painted in white the names of all the places his ship had visited as he crossed the Pacific – Pearl Harbor, Eineweetok, Kwajelein, Tinian, Saipan, Guam, Okinawa, Yokohama, Yokusaka, and Tokyo. These names seemed to me to be not so much small islands in the midst of a huge sea, but rather badges of honor won in a great victory over the despicable forces of facism that had recently threatened our very way of life; at least that was the lesson hammered home by my repeated viewings of Victory at Sea. We handled these talismans with genuine reverence; they were almost sacred relics that proved that our dads had acted bravely in defense of our country.
So, as I said earlier, surrounded as we were by all these reminders of what all of our fathers had undergone in serving their country, it was not surprising that we thought it only natural to come together in complete unity – to stand in utter silence – to honor the veterans of America’s foreign wars on this day every November. Somehow there was great comfort to be had in the idea that our dads, who protected us daily from the trials and tribulations of the life of a seven-year-old, had helped, in a larger sense, protect our entire country. And, although of course we did not think of it then, (such thoughts being unthinkable as a child), they – seemingly immortal – had lived through the experience. As their reward for serving and surviving these members of the “Greatest Generation” were allowed to live in identical houses (all financed by the G.I. Bill mortgage program) and raise identical families in a life-style that was clearly better than that of their parents.
So, I grew up in an atmosphere of great uniformity. Life was good and safe and comfortable, and – because we were all children – we thought that was the way it was supposed to be. But, whereas my father and his generation were expected to serve, things were far different for my generation.
I came of age during the Vietnam War, and it quickly became apparent to me that my generation did not necessarily feel that it was its duty to serve. Of the 75 guys I was closest to in college, only three of us actually served on active duty. Some went into the National Guard, some into the Reserves, some dodged the draft through means that I still find abhorrent, and some were just lucky in the draft lottery. I did not particularly wish to serve (and when my uncle, who lived on the Canadian border, jokingly offered me his permanent bridge pass to Canada, for a moment I thought about taking it), but when drafted, I felt obligated to go.
And there was some danger. Unlike the dads of my old neighborhood, all of whom came back unscarred, my friends were being harmed. My high school classmate, Vic Haug, returned from Vietnam to months of painful rehabilitation, and he still has a scar from a sniper’s bullet that runs the length of his forearm. Kevin Dugan, with whom I played basketball in high school, was killed in Saigon when a Vietcong guerrilla threw a hand grenade into the jeep he was driving. Carl Annabel, another guy I went to high school with, was lost when the submarine Thresher went down with all hands. And my college classmate Mac Abbey could never sleep without a light on after his bunker in Vietnam was overrun in a night attack, leaving him the only survivor. Clearly this was a different war from the one I had observed watching those TV shows.
I began to think about a lot of things, and some of my thinking caused me to review the picture I had of my old neighborhood and my dad’s war. There were now terrible ironies for me in the story of how America had fought, “to make the world safe for democracy” while so severely limiting the participation of so many of its citizens.
I’m not sure exactly when they stopped blowing that whistle on Veterans’ Day in my old hometown, but I know they no longer do. During the Vietnam era it became unfashionable – and even morally questionable – to welcome home publicly those who had served. And many of us who did serve had such mixed feelings about it that we positively welcomed the anonymity. When my parents, who hadn’t seen me for almost two years, met me at the airport when I returned from my tour of duty in Korea, they were vocally disappointed that I was not wearing my uniform. After all, that was how everyone came home from my father’s war. Perhaps I was not brave enough to be dressed in uniform – to stand out, to be that different – when so very few of my friends and companions had worn one. Think about what that word “uniform” means – everyone dressed identically. When the “uniform” of my generation was bell-bottom jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts, there was a terrible loneliness in being dressed in my military tunic.
So, how do I feel about being a veteran today? Actually, pretty proud. Now that I’m older and more mature, I’m glad that I fulfilled one of the obligations of citizenship that my country placed on me. I’m glad that I had an experience that makes me almost unique among my friends and colleagues. I’m glad that I had a chance to discover what a wonderful land Korea is and how wonderful her people are. I’m glad that at the age of 22 I was forced to abandon for two years everyone I knew and loved, for in their absence I learned how to truly value them. And I’m glad I served because it is one more connection between two very different people – my father and me.
Every time I look at those photographs in the foyer of this Chapel, I feel a connection with those young men. I have (actually my mother has it still) a photograph of myself just like theirs, and so does my dad. Right now our country is again at war, this time in Afghanistan and recently Iraq, and some of you sitting here today are destined to have the same photograph taken of you. It is my fervent home that you’ll serve with dignity, honor and courage, but it is my even greater hope that our country, and all of her citizens – even those exercising their legitimate freedom to dissent from current government policies – will find a way to continuously honor those of her sons and daughters who have given their lives in service to their country. You can make a start today, by taking a moment and just thinking about those Peddie students from an earlier time whose pictures hang on the walls in the foyer of this Chapel; Peddie students who gave the last full measure of devotion. Surely, their sacrifice does matter.