Com­mem­o­rat­ing Ar­mistice Day

The Covington News - - OPINION -

Last week, on the first Tues­day of Novem­ber, Amer­ica qui­etly ob­served an oc­ca­sion which pretty much sets our sys­tem of gov­ern­ment and our way of life apart from any other: elec­tion day. Surely next year, with a pres­i­den­tial race un­der way, the spiffy new vot­ing ma­chines will get more of a work­out.

I hope so, at least. Voter turnout here in our town, where two city coun­cil po­si­tions and the mayor’s job were up for grabs, can only be char­ac­ter­ized as dis­mal. Only about 1,200 of us took the time and made the ef­fort to cast a vote in the 2007 mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion. The low turnout sends a mes­sage which the vast and silent ma­jor­ity amongst us ap­par­ently feels to be true: cast­ing a vote just doesn’t make a dif­fer­ence any­more.

And that’s a trav­esty, in my view. For to­day, Novem­ber 11, Amer­ica ob­serves an­other most im­por­tant oc­ca­sion, Vet­er­ans Day. We’re re­minded that our vet­er­ans have paid the ul­ti­mate price to keep sa­cred for Amer­i­cans the right to vote on elec­tion day. Those vet­er­ans we honor went into harm’s way for us, and I’ve al­ways thought of vot­ing as my duty to honor those who are no longer here to mark their own bal­lots.

Back in 1918, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the world ob­served the end of what was called “the war to end all wars.” What be­came known as World War I fea­tured weapons so hor­ren­dous that the civ­i­lized na­tions of the world agreed never again to use poi­son gas — to­day’s chem­i­cal weapons. The date be­came known as Ar­mistice Day, widely hoped to mark for­ever the end of war­fare.

But it was not to be. And so, in 1954, Pres­i­dent Dwight Eisen­hower, him­self a no­table vet­eran of World War II, re­named the ob­ser­vance as Vet­er­ans Day in Amer­ica, to honor all who paid the ul­ti­mate price for free­dom.

My own per­sonal ties with World War I have dimmed with the pas­sage of time. My dad, born eight years prior to Ar­mistice Day, had been raised by the gen­er­a­tion which en­dured that last episode in static war­fare. I re­mem­ber him telling me the story of Sergeant Alvin York’s ex­ploits, told to him by a vet­eran who had been there. And I re­mem­ber the sad story of our across-the-street neigh­bors in Decatur, who im­mi­grated to Amer­ica from Ger­many, whose rel­a­tives ac­tu­ally fought against each other from trenches on ei­ther side of “no man’s land.”

My con­nec­tion to World War II vet­er­ans is stronger, as my dad and other rel­a­tives served in that “last good war.” In our den hangs a 48-star United States en­sign which flew dur­ing the bat­tle for Guadal­canal from a minesweeper, USS Gayety. Her skip­per was the youngest com­man­der of any Amer­i­can sur­face war­ship in World War II, a mild-man­nered man who af­ter the war be­came a renowned au­thor and li­brar­ian.

He was my un­cle, Richard Barks­dale Har­well, and like his two brothers, he was a vet­eran. My late god­mother served in what some call “Amer­ica’s Forgotten War,” the Korean Con­flict. Women serv­ing in the mil­i­tary were still the ex­cep­tion to the rule in 1951, but she was the first Navy nurse sta­tioned in Korea, where she served with dis­tinc­tion.

Her name was Gwen Dekle, and she was a vet­eran.

One of my youth­ful air­line co-work­ers in tower op­er­a­tions em­bod­ies what I imag­ine “Den­nis the Men­ace” to be as an adult. He has a ready laugh, a mis­chievous twin­kle in his eye, speaks South­ern English and “red­neck” and doesn’t sweat what he knows to be the small stuff. That’s be­cause in his Na­tional Guard unit he’s a spe­cial­ist in nu­clear and bi­o­log­i­cal weapons, you see, and he’s seen the re­sults of atroc­i­ties in Bos­nia. Hav­ing com­pleted a tour in Iraq, he’s gone into harm’s way twice now for you and me and will pos­si­bly be there again should the need arise.

This good man is Cor­bett Wil­son, and he’s a vet­eran.

My air­line work has al­lowed me to also know a gen­tle gi­ant of a man, a solidly framed ramp ad­min­is­tra­tor whose pres­ence lights up a room. He was young and sin­gle when he joined the Navy to see the world, but when his air­craft car­rier was de­ployed to the Mid­dle East in the first Gulf War, things changed. Now he’s mar­ried and de­voted to rais­ing two sons. His un­ruf­fled de­meanor and pro­fes­sional bear­ing helps ev­ery­one in the tower get through stress­ful times which crop up at the world’s busiest air­port.

His name is An­dre McEl­roy, and he’s a vet­eran.

There’s a slen­der, ath­letic colonel who heads up the Re­serve Of­fi­cer Train­ing Corps pro­gram on the cam­pus of Ole Miss. A Ranger, he was there for the ex­trac­tion of Panama’s Pres­i­dent Man­ual Nor­iega to face drug traf­fick­ing charges, did a tour in Korea, served as an in­struc­tor at West Point and de­ployed to Iraq. A leader by ex­am­ple, you’d never sus­pect this quiet fam­ily man to be the re­cip­i­ent of a Pur­ple Heart and Bronze Star. The Pur­ple Heart came when an Iraqi sui­cide bomber blew up his ve­hi­cle. They gave him the Bronze Star for re­fus­ing evac­u­a­tion in or­der to stay with and con­tinue lead­ing his troops.

His name is Jim Shaver, and he’s a vet­eran.

From our neck of the woods comes a young pilot who flies com­mer­cially for Con­ti­nen­tal Air­lines. He plies the skies in a 737 when he’s home, but a great deal of the time he’s a ma­jor at the con­trols of a Her­cules C-130. Right now he and his guys are up against the Tal­iban. He e-mails me when he can, and I try to tell him how proud I am just to know him.

His name is Wil Baulk­mon, and he’s a vet­eran.

And out Jack­son Lake way, an 80-year-old man re­cov­er­ing from a knee re­place­ment keeps watch over the bass and crap­pie. He en­listed in the Navy at 16, fudg­ing on his age, and came face-to-face with Kamikaze sui­cide bombers at Ok­i­nawa in the Pa­cific Theater of World War II. Aboard his ship, USS Pam­ina, he was present in Tokyo Bay at the Ja­panese sur­ren­der.

His name is Troy Drum­mond, my daddy-in-law, and he’s a vet­eran.

And so it is that our na­tion ap­proaches the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month and our ob­ser­vance of Vet­er­ans Day. As Amer­i­cans, it is im­por­tant for us to re­flect upon the fact that our lives, our lib­erty, our pur­suit of hap­pi­ness and our right to vote have been bought and paid for by those who knew that free­dom is not free.

It is in­cum­bent upon us to honor their sac­ri­fice by pre­serv­ing what they fought and died for — th­ese United States of Amer­ica. And as we move through our daily lives, brush­ing shoul­ders with and cross­ing the paths of vet­er­ans who con­tinue to go in harm’s way for free­dom’s sake, the very least we can do is com­mit to the im­por­tance of vot­ing come next Elec­tion Day.

With­out ques­tion, for my gen­er­a­tion, the Viet­nam War was the sem­i­nal event which changed the way we looked at vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing. The deep scars on Amer­ica’s con­science took time to heal, and while that wa­ter was flow­ing be­neath the bridge, many vet­er­ans felt lost in the shuf­fle. Few were the pa­rades honor­ing our he­roes when they re­turned; there was vir­tu­ally no recog­ni­tion of their sac­ri­fices from what, in pre­vi­ous wars, would have been a grate­ful na­tion.

But grad­u­ally things changed. Time lent per­spec­tive.

In late 1982 I vis­ited a grassy in­cline just north of the re­flect­ing pool on the mall in Wash­ing­ton, D. C. dur­ing Vet­er­ans Day week­end. The day be­fore Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan ded­i­cated the Viet­nam Vet­er­ans’ Me­mo­rial, I walked through the tent city which had formed around the site and took in the stuff of life. I saw things that en­dure, things that mat­ter, things that money can’t buy and things those who pos­sess them would never give up.

I re­mem­ber walk­ing the length of the pol­ished chevron, deep in re­flec­tion even as I saw my­self re­flected from within the names of those who per­ished. The chevron formed a deep­en­ing gash in the earth, and as I turned up­hill from the ful­crum I re­mem­ber won­der­ing how Amer­ica could ever emerge from the sever­ity of such loss.

And just then, I saw a busi­ness­man in a three-piece suit pause as a grungy, dirty, bearded man in worn fa­tigues emerg­ing from his one-man tent hailed him. The men stood fac­ing each other word­lessly, sus­pended in time, search­ing each other’s faces. And then they em­braced, sob­bing and unashamed. They’d been brothers in Viet­nam, you see. They’d had each other’s backs when it mat­tered most, when all the chips were down.

They were vet­er­ans.

Nat Har­well

Colum­nist

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