Friday, December 7, 2012

Infamy Apparently Isn't What It Used To Be

I know what today is. Every year, I am one of the increasingly few people who acknowledge that it's a Day That Requires Remembering. A lot of you are probably blinking at your screen, thinking shit, what did I miss, but if you are, don't feel bad. Through the passage of time, things get forgotten, especially these days, when "important" means something different than it used to. 

Today is Pearl Harbor Day. It's the anniversary of when the Japanese pulled a sneak-attack on our naval fleet, which was stationed at Hawaii, hoping to take out our forces before we could hop into the fray. Instead, it just kind of pissed us off, and we got up off our isolationist asses and rolled up our sleeves and did what we do best: fight. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared December 7th to be a date that would live on in infamy, which wasn't really hyperbolization on his part, as that day was incredibly pivotal in setting the course for the 20th century. The world would be a very different place if the United States hadn't gotten involved in WWII.

The last time you probably really heard mention of Pearl Harbor was in 2001, when people compared the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to the surprise attack of 12/7. The USA doesn't take kindly to being bombed on our own turf, and, as reactionary as ever, we hopped up and started looking around to finish that fight, too.

It's ironic, because that's a segue into the rest of my post... because my grandpa was a fighter. Like, he got in brawls all the time. He and his twin brother were notorious for being a pair of dudes you didn't want to mess with. And God help you if you picked on their other brothers. (My grandma, bless her, didn't know this about him until after she'd agreed to marry him... needless to say, she was none too pleased about it.) But he was scrappy and mischevious and if he was anything back then like I knew him to be later, he always had a wry grin on his face. Everyone liked him. It was hard not to. And he'd be damned if he didn't defend what he cared about.

Basically, my grandpa was like Captain America without the superpowers.

So today is Pearl Harbor Day and sadly most people have no idea what that means. There isn't even a Google doodle today. Which, to be honest, makes me really sad. They'll commemorate damn near anything, but not this?

Now, I'm not a wildly obsessive history buff, my interest here is largely sentimental. You see, my grandfather was AT Pearl Harbor when it was bombed.

Everyone who grew up with me knew this, because I always found it to be one of the coolest things about our family. I worked it into conversation whenever it was applicable. I did countless reports on it. My favorite was the one I did in college, I wrote a paper for one of my design classes about the symbolism and meaning of one of the Pearl Harbor propaganda posters, which I wish more than anything I could find. It's probably one a crappy floppy disk somewhere that no computer will ever be able to read - if I'm lucky. It's probably lost for all time. I even emailed the professor to see if she still had them but she only holds on those for a couple years then pitches them. Huge bummer.

History is always so fascinating to me and I was talking about this one time (my fascination with WWII-era America, specifically) and the BF made me watch Midnight in Paris which is a lovely movie because not only does it explore the concept of how we tend to romanticize earlier time periods, even though they were no better (or no worse) than our own, but also because most of the characters are writers. Like, famous writers. 

My grandpa didn't talk about it much, but I'm sure he would have if I'd asked. There were (and still are) books and memorabilia everywhere around my grandparents' house - so it's not that he was trying to avoid it. On the contrary. He embraced it. It was part of who he was. But I think by the time I came along, it was just common knowledge among the family and so it just wasn't really discussed much anymore. He died when I was 13. I wasn't quite old enough or smart enough to ask the questions of the things I'd like to know now.

I know the basics of his version of the story - he was peeling potatoes on his ship (the USS Helena) when the alarms sounded. His most vivid memory from that day was the image of the oil-slicked water that had caught on fire - it looked like the water itself was burning. His twin brother was there that day too, though I don't remember which ship he was on. They both went on to survive through the war from their respective stations (all I really know was that my grandpa was stationed in the Pacific and was in Australia for a bit and was actually engaged to a woman there, until he was home on leave and met my grandmother. He swept her off her feet and she broke it off with the fellow she'd been engaged to, and they got married and had seven kids, of which my dad was the youngest.) My grandmother still attended the Iowa survivors' chapter reunions every year right up until last year, which was their last one - 2011 was the 70th anniversary of the attack, and since so many of the veterans have passed away, they decided it was time to officially disband.

I'm dying to know more - about what life was like back then, in general, but mostly how it affected my grandparents and what there experiences were, and I'm sure my grandma would tell me, I just don't know what questions to ask. That's the problem, for all of us. We are losing that generation at such a rapid rate now, our window of time to collect their stories is shrinking. Soon it will be nothing more than what is written in books and captured on film.

My other grandpa was also in the navy, but he was stationed in San Diego for the duration of the war, working as a dentist. His claim to fame was that he once cleaned Gene Kelly's teeth. He almost went on to be a "real" dentist after that, but ended up being an accountant instead. I think it had something to do with his height or weight and not quite being eligible to re-enlist and thus have dentistry school paid for. I swear he just told us this story a couple months ago but I was too preoccupied by the album of old pictures that my grandma had dug up that I wasn't paying as close of attention as I could have. Overstimulation. Gets me every time. (Have I mentioned that I love old pictures? Because I do. I have most of what I could get my hands on scanned, and when my sister sees this post, she is going to issue another impatient reminder that I am supposed to get her a copy and SEE MINDY I AM REMEMBERING THIS ALL ON MY OWN AND I PROMISE I WILL GET THEM TO YOU SOON).

Both grandpas returned to Iowa, and if I know my family history well enough, I think they even grew up in the same town. Charles City, also home of famed suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt (though in those days she was just Carrie Lane). Neither stayed IN Charles City, but after all was said and done, they both ended up nearby.

Ahem. Where was I? Anyway. Pearl Harbor. Family history. These are things that are interesting to me though probably not you, so I'll shut up now.

I might be redundant because I post something more years than not, but by doing that, I am forcing you all to remember or reflect - even for a few seconds - on what previous generations have done for us, the sacrifices they made. The world was a different place then, not better, not worse, but it's all led us here, and it's up to us to keep that legacy going. Let's not eff it up, eh?

1 comment:

terra said...

I think it's awesome that you take the time to remember this each year and it's absolutely necessary. I didn't realize there hadn't been a google doodle on it, but it strikes me as weird too. It's such an incredible date in our nation's history and it changed the way our nation progressed.