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The Roundtable

Listener Essay - Legacy

  Carole Owens is an author and historian. 

Legacy

Sunday morning, “December 7, 1941, a date that will live in infamy.”

My grandfather was at Pearl Harbor. Sometime between 7:53 and 9:55 a.m., he was hit by shrapnel – nasty chunks of metal packed into bombs.

In 1941, he was fifty years old. He was a civilian aviation and ship repairman at the Navy Shipyards Shop 70. When the bombs started to fall, the men of Shop 70 made stretchers and painted big red crosses on the tops of hospitals and trucks transporting the wounded. It was no use, bombs and guns hit the red crosses as readily as they hit the ships and the barracks. In the end more than 900 at Pearl Harbor were injured or killed, and 18 ships were hit.

Grandpa wasn’t killed. He was treated and released. He remained at Pearl Harbor until 1945. In that time, the men of Shop 70 repaired 15 of the 18 ships hit and sent them back out to sea.

From Pearl Harbor, my grandfather wrote a letter to me “his first and only grandchild.” In the letter he enclosed a US Savings Bond and the piece of shrapnel the doctors removed from his body. The letter said, “one day, you in your first childhood and Grandma and I in our second childhood, will play by the lake shore.” We never did.

When the war was over, my grandfather was sent home to die. It wasn’t the shrapnel, it was the cancer the doctors discovered while treating his wounds.

He stayed at his post as long as he could. For almost four years, he did his job, fighting the cancer while helping to fight the war. I only saw him once, and I never heard his voice. Those 3 things – the letter, the piece of shrapnel and the United States savings bond - are all I have from my grandfather.

I write about the history of this country; just this once, however, I am moved to write about us here and now. It is Grandpa’s letter, you see. It is a remarkable letter, filled with love for, and a deep belief in the future United States of America. His generation will win the war, he wrote, and my generation will know how to build a better world in peace. I wonder if he would be proud of what we have done.

Interesting that in every sentence of his letter, he talks about America and Americans as “we”. Perhaps a strong external enemy pressed them together and created unity, but it is still alarming that today America has a stronger sense of us and them than we: American Democrats v. American Republicans, American Blacks v. American Whites or Hispanics, American rich v. American poor.

Grandfather had a sense of ability and optimism. No one had to tell him, “Yes, we can”; he knew he and his fellow Americans could. Interesting that we now need experts from outside our communities to tell us what good is. We need a poll to tell us how we feel and what we believe. We need pundits to tell us what the speech we just heard or the legislation just passed really means.

Grandfather knew good from evil, right from wrong, and he knew what the problem was. He had watched it unfold. It was the concentration of power and wealth in a few hands; the erosion of democracy and the reversion to oligarchy or worse. He knew concentration of power, wealth, or resources, undermined the rights and the opportunities of the many. He didn’t like that. He wanted to hold onto his rights and had no fear of exercising his responsibilities. Do we? How peculiar that we say nothing about giving corporations 99% of the wealth and then giving them the right of freedom of speech – a right reserved for people. Evidently owning the media outlets was insufficient. Strange that we sit and watch as they use both money and media to influence not just elections but truth itself.

Things were clear to my Grandfather; they are no longer clear to us. The more ways we invent to communicate, the less we are able to say. We reduce communication to 140 characters and 30 second sound-bites. The result is that in this information age, we are startlingly uninformed.

Pearl Harbor Day: for me it is reduced to a chunk of shrapnel, a United States savings bond, and a letter; but to all Americans, the legacy is much greater than that – I hope we don’t waste it.

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