Thursday, September 29, 2005

Vanessa's best-ever history lesson

The human qualities I most admire are courage, sensitivity, and humor, in that order. Last night I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to teach Vanessa about the first of these, while at the same time giving her what is doubtless the best history lesson she has ever had up to this point in her young life, and perhaps ever will have.

Vanessa, unlike her dad, has absolutely no sense of history. Much of this is the fault of the public school system, which in my opinion does a wretched job of teaching the subject; but in fairness to the schools, part of the problem is also that the subject is entirely outside Vanessa's rather narrow range of interests. After all, it is not discussed on the Disney Channel, and Lizzy McGuire never appears to show any interest in it herself.

All of that is background to this story. The Congressional Medal of Honor Society had its annual convention this week in Phoenix, and about 70 of the medal's 121 living recipients attended it. The Medal is the nation's highest award for military valor, and is only awarded for acts of truly conspicuous and extraordinary gallantry, far beyond the call of duty, and committed at great risk to the recipient's life. Not surprisingly, in a high percentage of cases -- perhaps as many as half or more -- the award is made posthumously.

Last night there was a public picnic/reception for the recipients at a park near downtown Phoenix. I took the afternoon off work, partly to attend this function, and partly to begin preparations to leave for Utah the following day. With my wife's concurrence, I decided to take Vanessa, who, to say the least, was not at all enthusiastic about the idea. She complained and grumbled about it until we got into the car, after which she sulked and glowered all the way into Phoenix. The only sound heard in the car during the entire trip was the soundtrack to "We Were Soldiers," which I had brought along to provide mood music for the occasion.

To make a long story short, we ended up standing in line for nearly five hours, but our patient efforts were rewarded with an experience neither of us is likely ever to have again. We met about 50 Medal recipients, some of whom, now in their eighties, served in World War II, and most of whom fought in Korea and Vietnam. (The oldest living Medal recipient is John Finn, age 96, who earned his right to wear it at Kaneohe Bay during the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941. The last surviving recipient of the Medal of Honor who was at or near Pearl on that fateful Sunday, Finn was also present for this reception, and we met him.) Most of these men fussed over Vanessa, as did the two gentlemen you see in this picture. (Click on the picture and read their stories.) In the end, Vanessa proved to be a good sport about the whole experience, although I think the historical significance of it still escapes her. But I'll keep trying. She did at least allow that the evening turned out to be time well-spent after all, and I am grateful for that.

As for myself, I was struck most by how ordinary all of these men seemed to be. None of them wore capes or leotards, or appeared to be from the planet Krypton; yet at some crucial juncture in their lives, under the stress of hellish conditions that none of us can even imagine, each of them rose to the occasion and accomplished something truly extraordinary, and heroic almost beyond belief. Heroes and role models have been important to me ever since childhood, and throughout my life I have been fascinated by stories of desperate battles fought for noble causes, which may have seemed hopeless at the time; historically, these would include Thermopylae, the Alamo, Bataan, and more recently, United Flight 93. (Of all the stories coming out of 9/11, that one intrigues me the most; I have probably read just about every word ever written about Flight 93, yet can never get enough of it.) I have never had to face anything comparable to what those people had to deal with, but last night's honorees would have understood what they went through. After all, they have walked a mile in shoes only a comparative handful of people have ever had to wear at all.

This was perhaps one of the best things I have ever done for my daughter, and I hope the day will come when she will understand and appreciate what I tried to teach her when I gave her this unique opportunity to rub shoulders with members of one of the world's noblest and most exclusive fraternities. And speaking for myself, I have met and shaken hands with one former president of the United States, a few Senators and Supreme Court justices, one supermodel, and assorted other celebrities and noteworthy people. But give me a few minutes with one of these Medal of Honor recipients over all day with any of the other people, and I will consider it more than a fair trade.
Incidentally, at this reception I plunked down $30.00 for a hardbound edition of a book titled Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty, by Nick Del Calzo and Peter Collier. I had seen it once before in the Chandler public library. Rarely, if ever, have I invested that sum of money in anything more worthwhile. During the course of the evening, dozens of the Medal recipients autographed the book, many on the pages devoted to them and their exploits. I now include that heavily-autographed book among my most deeply cherished possessions, and I have made a deal with Vanessa that when I come home from Utah in a few days, she and I will sit down and read some of those stories together. Thus the history lesson continues.


Blogger Julie D. said...

What a great experience that sounds like!

9:12 AM  
Blogger Sylvia said...

That is so awesome!! Wish I could have been there! I hope your trip to Utah is wonderful! I had hoped to be there this weekend as well, but it was not the right time.

I'm glad Vanessa was a good sport about it all! Yeah Vanessa!! :)

4:44 AM  

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