Seventy-five years ago, Cousin Paul was on a landing craft helping liberate Europe from Naziism. He was a long way from Charleston, West Virginia. He never spoke much of that time to me or about his later time (after the Battle of the Bulge) in a German POW camp.
Cousin Paul sat up in the craft watching the coast come closer until the bullets got too close for sight seeing. When the boat “landed,” he watched an officer step off the craft, into some sort of hole, never to be seen again. He made it to the beach where he finally could shoot back.
Like most in his generation, he came home and got about the business of doing his duty. Of course, they did not just come home, but returned to bring a greater sense of justice to American politics. Defeating the eugenics and racism of the Germans made American racism and injustice much harder to ignore.
For a generation the appeal of eugenics was dead: Cousin Paul and his buddies had seen too much. They did not create Utopia, making mistakes along the way including with their children the Boomers, but they are leaving the nation and the world better than they found it. That’s why when told that the last few “Greatest Generation” folk do not vote the way the younglings do, I pause. They knew a thing or two, changing more than a few injustices, putting their lives on the line.
I pause to listen to their wisdom while I can. That will not be for much longer. I love the picture of my dad as a boy with Cousin Paul as he got ready to go to War. Dad is eighty-one now, so do the math. The World War II generation of Cousin Paul, like Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, is winding up the tour of duty in this plane.
If you are twenty-something, find a member, male or female, of the Greatest Generation and listen. Ask questions. Hear an authentic voice while you can. Seventy-five years from now, when I am long gone, some of you will remain (God willing!) and be able on the 150th anniversary of the landing to say what you heard from the men and women who lived the history.
This will matter, because you will have experienced something, a first hand narrative and how that person had come to understand what he or she experienced, that nobody in that future day will be able to replicate. They can quantify, guess, and suggest, but you will have known what one member or so of the Greatest Generation had made of their time by year seventy-five. Times being what times always are, you will stand as a bulwark against a kind of spin that reduces an earlier generation to the service of the categories of the present.
Your witness will not matter because the veterans or people from that generation always will be right, memory fades and inerrancy is a miracle given to few men, but because what they made of their times over time is what they made of it. That fact will tell a great deal about 2019 and the first D-Day.
Serve the future while you can.
Rest in peace Cousin Paul. See you in the morning.