Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Passing into History

I was both surprised and saddened to see this headline in the NY Times this week:

Frank Buckles, Last World War I Doughboy, Is Dead at 110.

In all honesty, I wasn't even aware that there were any WWI veterans alive. But Frank was not only alive and well, he even had his own website, Frank W. Buckles: America's Last Survivor of the First World War. It's very nicely done and well worth the visit.

It also serves as a wonderful reminder of how valuable oral history and memoirs can be. Each of us holds within us a lifetime of memories that are uniquely ours, and the only way anyone else can learn from our experiences is if we share those memories. I can't tell you how many times I've kicked myself for not asking questions, either because I didn't think to, or because I didn't want to pry. Trying to piece together my father's WWII experiences based on the snippets he shared and the memories of others is frustrating and extremely incomplete. How much more would I have known had I simply asked a few gentle questions?

The charming anecdotes, the funny stories and the horrific tragedies that make up the fabric of our lives are the very things that make us real to those who come after us. The serious lady in the faded photograph suddenly becomes the young girl who got in trouble with her father because she liked to race the horse home from church on Sunday, and the cocky lad in the varsity letter sweater has a reason to be smug because he was the fastest corn husker in the county, earning a nickel for every hundred ears he husked.

I have a customer who moves me to tears. He used to work for the railroad, but he's retired now due to severe health issues. We used to chat about this great place he likes to take his grandson fishing and how the fish are biting, but in the last year he's lost his voice to esophageal cancer and communication is difficult. I'm a poor lip reader, and his handwriting is barely legible, but he still manages to make himself understood. One day he asked me to make some copies for him, and one of those items copied was a commendation for bravery under fire in Vietnam. I confessed to having read the commendation, and he told me he served two tours in Vietnam and was shot three times, once in the posterior. I asked him which hurt worse, his pride or his backside. He laughed and pointed to his back pocket. The next day he brought in a box and slid it across the counter to me along with a note: "This isn't even half of what I have." The box was filled with medals, including his Purple Heart.

I cried, right there in the bank. Then I hugged him and thanked him for what he did.

To meet this unassuming man on the street, one would never suspect him capable of those things for which he was honored. But he has a story, an amazing story, which needs to be preserved. As do you and I, our parents and grandparents, and others of their generations.

As did Frank Buckles.

The roll has been called up yonder: All present and accounted for. At ease, Corporal. Rest in peace.

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