The World War II Memorial
It was a moving experience. Old men and women, many in wheel chairs, some with oxygen tanks, moving -- slowly -- around the Mall, hoping to see buddies who are probably long gone and certainly no longer recognizable some 60 years later. At the dedication ceremony itself, it was remarkable to see how many 70 and 80 year olds who could still fit in the Marine dress blues or Eisenhower jackets they wore in their 20s and 30s. Ramrod straight backs.
But most of all, the sense of community and the sense of humor these guys -- and their long-suffering wives -- showed was a reminder of how self-conscious and self-absorbed are the generations that have followed. It was a marked contrast with the other big event that was to occur in the Capitol over the weekend -- the Rolling Thunder motorcycle...whatever for Vietnam vets/POW/MIA -- who basically took over the Mall pretty much as soon as the WWII events were over...even the DC police disappeared in the face of these vaguely menacing guys (and their women) and their really, really loud machines. Of course, I had to remind myself, the Hells Angels first formed early in the post-WWII years. In the late forties and fifties, the returning Vets weren't all the saintly codgers ambling from Swing Dance to the Reunion tents we find today.
The dedication ceremony itself had moments of real emotion, such as when Taps was played and the Vets saluted or held their caps over their hearts, remembering -- or trying to -- comrades lost both during the war and the many years sense.
And there were many light hearted moments, such as when Bob Dole -- who certainly received the loudest and most sincere applause of the day -- spoke. Looking out over the enormous audience filling the Mall, he asked, "Where were these crowds when I was running?"
And, of course, after receiving applause that was neither tepid nor rousing, Bush spoke. Not badly, I admit, but it occurred to me that FDR, in his many addresses to the nation asked from his countrymen enormous sacrifice, but spoke optimistically. GWB, in contrast, speaks of the "War on Terror" only in the most pessimistic terms, but asks for no sacrifice other than from those already in service.
There seemed to be two kinds of vets at the events this weekend. Guys like my father, who were happy to be there, but had basically moved on since the war ended and could barely remember much besides the painful discomfort of basic training, advanced training in the case of my father, and the miserable cold of Europe in the winter of '44 ("How could you dig fox holes in the frozen ground?" "When they're shooting at you, you dig."), and other guys -- usually wearing full VFW regalia -- who seemed to remember the most minute details. A typical exchange:
"What branch were you in?"
"The army; 82nd Airborne."
"Airborne! What company?"
"Hell, I don't remember."
I suggested to the Old Man that the reason some of these other guy's memories were so clear is that they have spent the last 60 years sitting around VFW halls every Friday, recounting their past heroism. Father Cura hasn't been to a VFW "Fish Fry" since the mid-50s.
But even in the case of my father, for whom the past isn't only dead, it's buried, for the first time in my life he began talking about the war. I think for a lot of these guys, it has taken more than half a century to begin to speak -- even in the most vague terms -- about what they saw over there in Europe or the Pacific. That, in and of itself, was worth the price of admission.
Anyway. It's about time. These guys deserved this weekend.