Friday, September 08, 2006

A Hero's Quiet Exit

My oldest friend buried his father this week. One more quiet hero of that greatest of generations, a veteran of WWII, slipped from this world. Frank was a fixture in our LI community. Like many fathers, his public face was a little different from his private. Frank, always soft spoken in public could be awfully grouchy around the house. But all in all he was a gentleman. Frank was a believer in a non-violent approach whenever possible. He never used or advocated violence in the three plus decades I knew him. Born in 1916, he was a living monument to the Victorian era and its values.

Frank grew up in Forest Hills in Queens. He graduated from one of New York City’s high schools, at a time when they were still considered among the nation’s best. But he never made it to college. Instead he continued to read, voraciously all his life. He became a highly literate autodidact, hence his life long involvement with our community’s library. Of course the defining moment early in his life was the great struggle against fascism in WWII.

When war finally came to America on December 7, 1942, Frank’s entire cohort was called upon to serve. Across the nation, young American men went before their draft boards to be evaluated for service. Frank never an athlete, had very poor vision, correctible only with thick glasses. The draft board rated Frank 4F, not fit for service. Frank was heartbroken. In spite of his innate resistance to violence as a solution, Frank realized the huge import of the war.

All his friends, his associates, peers, relatives of the same age, virtually his entire generation, were going off to fight for the preservation of democracy. Some fifteen million men of military age were called to arms in the US armed forces during the war. Frank, gentle, bookish, with poor eyesight refused to be left out of the struggle. He begged the draft board to take him. He couldn’t bear to see friends head of to war while he remained behind. He insisted he was going too.

Due to his persistence Frank was eventually allowed to enlist as a clerk typist in the US Army’s Medical Corps. And in the topsy-turvy ways of war, this 4F soon found himself driving ambulances at the front. Frank served in combat, pulling the wounded and the dying off the line of battle all over North Africa and Italy. He saw enough action and enough suffering for a dozen lifetimes. He was awarded the prestigious Combat Infantrymen’s Badge, only to have it taken back because he wasn’t in the infantry. Still it speaks of the intensity of his war that this man almost passed over by his draft board was even considered for the CIB.

At the war’s end, he came home and began building his future, and the nation’s. He married, went to work for the postal service, and settled down on Long Island. He bought a house in Mineola, and there he raised two children. He became a quiet leader in that middle class suburb. A lifelong Catholic he voted Democrat, celebrating, then mourning President Kennedy. He sat on the parish council. He was an officer of the parish school’s parents association. He was a friend of, and a board member for our community library. He held a series of offices in the Knights of Columbus council.

He watched with some sadness as the upheavals of the sixties ate away at some of the values he held dear. Frank was no reactionary. A Roosevelt Democrat who became a JFK Democrat, he was happy to see civil rights and anti-poverty programs address long standing injustice. But he never understood the revolutionary anger of the upper and middle class baby boomers. Their contempt for authority and disregard for tradition horrified his morality, rooted as it was, in the 19th century. But Frank remained a quiet example of those values and tradition never seeking confrontation.

He lived to see a second surprise attack on his nation. And the immediate aftermath of 9-11 must have seemed familiar, with flags flying everywhere and people from across the nation pitching in, and donating time and goods. Young men and women, many already set in their own careers, took time to enlist. Some for active duty. Some in the various reserve components. But now, five years on, fear of Sacrifice has returned.

Like many younger Americans I’ve had mixed feelings about Tom Brokaw’s appellation: The Greatest Generation. While I remain in awe at their sacrifices and accomplishments, I have long hoped that my peers and I were equally worthy, that we could equal their sacrifices, and commitments. But I fear it is not to be. Something has changed in America. Some of us are still wiling to serve. To sacrifice, to risk. But the after effects of the 1960’s and 70’s remain like a bad hangover. Now sacrifice is mainly something that is made to accomplish one’s own goals. Sacrifice today is no civic virtue, only a means to a personal reward.

Frank and his cohort understood sacrifice as a noble act.

They were truly were great men.
Fifteen million great Americans.
Slowly slipping out of our lives,
and out of our consciousness.

As seen at Mudville Gazette.