Words to Remember

Fri, 06/03/2016 - 9:45am
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It is Memorial Day on Block Island, a gray Monday, rainy then foggy then hopeful and back to some form of dampness in the air. It is only by the surfaces of the puddles that I can be certain if there is real precipitation falling from the sky or only the heavy mist that feels like rain on the skin, and looks like rain on the glasses, and feels like rain in the hair.

People have spoken of rainy Memorial Day weekends but I think of them as singularly beautiful and warm, of sunburns gotten at the beach in those long ago days when an ocean plunge was a ritual and yard work an expectation.

It did rain, I remember, one year when I was in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, visiting a college roommate. Her younger brother was in the high school marching band and his tall hat, black and furry, was encased in plastic that day. We went to town, to old streets lined with houses with front porches, places from which to watch the parade and cheer the band.

It was a surprise a year or two ago when I stumbled upon the fact that it is the oldest continuously held Memorial Day parade in the country. It is more of a surprise because my roommate’s father was a master of such information; it is impossible he did not know and tell us, repeatedly.

We had not yet lost the day to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, to sales and summer’s beginnings. Not so many years earlier, here, off to school we went, then to the Legion Park for “exercises” where we recited long rehearsed poems, and sang songs. I am not sure if it really happened but in my memory there was a piano loaded onto a truck and hauled to the New Harbor.

The demographics of the island were very different; most us had a father or uncle whose name we could find on the plaque affixed to the World War II monument, the long Honor Roll of service people, all who went to war, almost all of whom came home. We had a particular honor, my brother and I; our father and four uncles were there.

I have always said my grandmother — and others like her — deserved a monument with her name in cast bronze. A widow, she saw her five sons go off to war while she remained in this place where windows facing the sea had blackout curtains and everyone was required to carry an identification card issued by the Coast Guard. She was fortunate; all her “boys” came home.

Several years ago an aunt who was visiting said “we were sitting right here” on an August day in 1945. My father was home on leave from the Navy base in Groton. “I can see him, going to the radio and telling us to listen.” The first atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan.

Victory had been declared in Europe two months earlier; the war in the Pacific would soon end, they all knew and were grateful, but she said, “Your father knew that the world had changed,” in a way most of them did not immediately grasp.

Soldiers came home; the economy boomed, bolstered by technological advances made during the war and by this generation ready to start new lives. Dwight Eisenhower, a great General of World War II, served two full terms as President and, on the eve of leaving office in January 1961, delivered a speech on live television.

The Cold War had deepened during his administrations, and with it military spending; no one wanted to be as unprepared as this nation was at the outset of World War II. Still, President Eisenhower never abandoned his hope for peace. Toward the end of the address he said:

Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.

Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of the battlefield.

Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose. Because this need is so sharp and apparent I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war – as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years – I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.

Happily, I can say that war has been avoided. Steady progress toward our ultimate goal has been made. But, so much remains to be done. As a private citizen, I shall never cease to do what little I can to help the world advance along that road.

So – in this my last good night to you as your President – I thank you for the many opportunities you have given me for public service in war and peace. I trust that in that service you find some things worthy; as for the rest of it, I know you will find ways to improve performance in the future.

You and I – my fellow citizens – need to be strong in our faith that all nations, under God, will reach the goal of peace with justice. May we be ever unswerving in devotion to principle, confident but humble with power, diligent in pursuit of the Nations’ great goals. 

His are words to remember, and not just on Memorial Day.