Column: "Sauntering": Memorializing soldiers, politicians

Wednesday, June 9, 2004

by Mary Jean Sell

It was a schizophrenic weekend in a way.

There was the very present and immediate Eureka Blues Festival all over town, along with the bikers and their loud machines.

Through the magic of television, I wanted to be part of the pageantry, and perhaps, history-making, run for the Belmont Stakes where Smarty Jones had a chance to win the Triple Crown of horse racing. It would be the first time in 27 years a horse had been that good.

I kept watching ESPN and listening to those dolts go on and on about other horses and other races. The program went on for two hours, then took a hour and a half break for a golf tournament.

When the horse show came back, the race had already been run! People were leaving the stadium!

I had to wait while they showed video replay of the race. They didn't even cover the race as it was run. And Smarty didn't win! I was stunned.

It was a magnificent race. Smarty led all the way until the home stretch. And then, as these things happen, here came Birdstone swooping past and winning!

And somewhere in all the channel flipping, came the news of former President Ronald Reagan's death and pictures of memorial services in Normandy, France, marking the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of Europe.

And on Sunday, I saw more images of the D-Day invasion, Mr. Reagan as a young actor, California politician, and as President of the United States.

In the film clips of the presidency, he was hale and hearty, always smiling, happy to have his wife, Nancy, at his side.

The commentators kept talking about Reagan's lack of public life in the past 10 years as his mind and health failed from the ravages of Alzheimer's Disease. They read from a letter he wrote to the nation, announcing his illness and asking for prayers for us all.

They praised Nancy for her steadfast care of her husband, staying with him to the final hour.

And other commentators were telling stories of other brave people, their singular acts of courage, their survival of the terrible world war, their lives today.

The pictorial images of the war 60 years ago, memorial observances 20 years ago on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, young men in uniforms, old men in uniforms and VFW caps, the services on Sunday and the services to come at the end of this week kept my brain jumping back and forth, trying to keep up.

It was hard to separate the events as the day wore on. I didn't spend all that much time with the television on Sunday, but the images kept jumbling up.

I remembered my personal agony during the days following President John F. Kennedy's assassination and his state funeral. It seemed as if a light had gone out in this country. It still feels that way.

I remembered watching the memorial service for President Richard Nixon on the grounds of his library in Yorba Linda, Calif.

It was a simple ceremony and everyone participating focused on Nixon the Statesman, not Nixon the Crook. Commentators talked about it some, but not a lot, they wanted to give him some dignity at the end.

And now, the arrangements are made, the pageantry has begun for the final days of another American President.

Commentators are already giving Mr. Reagan some remarkable attributes, saying he is responsible for the dissolution of the Soviet Union, for instance. I think not.

What I do agree with is that Reagan had dignity about himself and the way he conducted his job. He also had humor, and maybe that got him through the tough times.

Ten years out is not really long enough to judge how history will remember a particular president.

But 60 years out is long enough to make heroes out of everyday soldiers who did what they were told, even though they were scared to death and knew they were going to die. Those who didn't die, came home to parades and free drinks and handshakes all the way around.

The men and women who came home from Korea and Vietnam didn't get such accolades, and haven't yet.

The men and women serving in Afghanistan and Iraq and all the other places where war is going on are being called heroes, but they are not being paid living wages, their benefits are being cut, their families are on welfare to eat and have places to live.

In a country that speaks of honoring those who serve, there seems to be little to back it up these days.

The country is not rallied behind them, the current President can't tell the same story two days in a row, he is spending billions on weapons when the country is shutting down because of social program cuts.

The days of war bond rallies and USO shows seem long ago. For my generation, we don't know what it is for everyone to support a war effort. We protested Vietnam and we are protesting this effort as well.

The contrast in memorializing the efforts of those in World War II and the news footage coming out of Iraq is difficult to reconcile.

At any rate, to those who gave and are giving so much so that I might watch television on Sundays and work in an air-conditioned office and have popcorn when I want, thank you.

Thank you for those sacrifices you made. Thank you for giving time to the nation when you could have been in front of your own television eating your own popcorn.

Thank you for surviving boot camp, the rigors of combat, whatever horrible things were forced upon you. Thank you for living through it and coming home.

I appreciate your efforts.

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