Last week, on the first Tuesday of November, America quietly observed an occasion which pretty much sets our system of government and our way of life apart from any other: election day. Surely next year, with a presidential race under way, the spiffy new voting machines will get more of a workout.
I hope so, at least. Voter turnout here in our town, where two city council positions and the mayor's job were up for grabs, can only be characterized as dismal. Only about 1,200 of us took the time and made the effort to cast a vote in the 2007 municipal election. The low turnout sends a message which the vast and silent majority amongst us apparently feels to be true: casting a vote just doesn't make a difference anymore.
And that's a travesty, in my view. For today, November 11, America observes another most important occasion, Veterans Day. We're reminded that our veterans have paid the ultimate price to keep sacred for Americans the right to vote on election day. Those veterans we honor went into harm's way for us, and I've always thought of voting as my duty to honor those who are no longer here to mark their own ballots.
Back in 1918, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the world observed the end of what was called "the war to end all wars." What became known as World War I featured weapons so horrendous that the civilized nations of the world agreed never again to use poison gas - today's chemical weapons. The date became known as Armistice Day, widely hoped to mark forever the end of warfare.
But it was not to be. And so, in 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower, himself a notable veteran of World War II, renamed the observance as Veterans Day in America, to honor all who paid the ultimate price for freedom.
My own personal ties with World War I have dimmed with the passage of time. My dad, born eight years prior to Armistice Day, had been raised by the generation which endured that last episode in static warfare. I remember him telling me the story of Sergeant Alvin York's exploits, told to him by a veteran who had been there. And I remember the sad story of our across-the-street neighbors in Decatur, who immigrated to America from Germany, whose relatives actually fought against each other from trenches on either side of "no man's land."
My connection to World War II veterans is stronger, as my dad and other relatives served in that "last good war." In our den hangs a 48-star United States ensign which flew during the battle for Guadalcanal from a minesweeper, USS Gayety. Her skipper was the youngest commander of any American surface warship in World War II, a mild-mannered man who after the war became a renowned author and librarian.
He was my uncle, Richard Barksdale Harwell, and like his two brothers, he was a veteran.
My late godmother served in what some call "America's Forgotten War," the Korean Conflict. Women serving in the military were still the exception to the rule in 1951, but she was the first Navy nurse stationed in Korea, where she served with distinction.
Her name was Gwen Dekle, and she was a veteran.
One of my youthful airline co-workers in tower operations embodies what I imagine "Dennis the Menace" to be as an adult. He has a ready laugh, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, speaks Southern English and "redneck" and doesn't sweat what he knows to be the small stuff. That's because in his National Guard unit he's a specialist in nuclear and biological weapons, you see, and he's seen the results of atrocities in Bosnia. Having completed a tour in Iraq, he's gone into harm's way twice now for you and me and will possibly be there again should the need arise.
This good man is Corbett Wilson, and he's a veteran.
My airline work has allowed me to also know a gentle giant of a man, a solidly framed ramp administrator whose presence lights up a room. He was young and single when he joined the Navy to see the world, but when his aircraft carrier was deployed to the Middle East in the first Gulf War, things changed. Now he's married and devoted to raising two sons. His unruffled demeanor and professional bearing helps everyone in the tower get through stressful times which crop up at the world's busiest airport.
His name is Andre McElroy, and he's a veteran.
There's a slender, athletic colonel who heads up the Reserve Officer Training Corps program on the campus of Ole Miss. A Ranger, he was there for the extraction of Panama's President Manual Noriega to face drug trafficking charges, did a tour in Korea, served as an instructor at West Point and deployed to Iraq. A leader by example, you'd never suspect this quiet family man to be the recipient of a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. The Purple Heart came when an Iraqi suicide bomber blew up his vehicle. They gave him the Bronze Star for refusing evacuation in order to stay with and continue leading his troops.
His name is Jim Shaver, and he's a veteran.
From our neck of the woods comes a young pilot who flies commercially for Continental Airlines. He plies the skies in a 737 when he's home, but a great deal of the time he's a major at the controls of a Hercules C-130. Right now he and his guys are up against the Taliban. He e-mails me when he can, and I try to tell him how proud I am just to know him.
His name is Wil Baulkmon, and he's a veteran.
And out Jackson Lake way, an 80-year-old man recovering from a knee replacement keeps watch over the bass and crappie. He enlisted in the Navy at 16, fudging on his age, and came face-to-face with Kamikaze suicide bombers at Okinawa in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Aboard his ship, USS Pamina, he was present in Tokyo Bay at the Japanese surrender.
His name is Troy Drummond, my daddy-in-law, and he's a veteran.
And so it is that our nation approaches the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month and our observance of Veterans Day. As Americans, it is important for us to reflect upon the fact that our lives, our liberty, our pursuit of happiness and our right to vote have been bought and paid for by those who knew that freedom is not free.
It is incumbent upon us to honor their sacrifice by preserving what they fought and died for - these United States of America. And as we move through our daily lives, brushing shoulders with and crossing the paths of veterans who continue to go in harm's way for freedom's sake, the very least we can do is commit to the importance of voting come next Election Day.
Without question, for my generation, the Vietnam War was the seminal event which changed the way we looked at virtually everything. The deep scars on America's conscience took time to heal, and while that water was flowing beneath the bridge, many veterans felt lost in the shuffle. Few were the parades honoring our heroes when they returned; there was virtually no recognition of their sacrifices from what, in previous wars, would have been a grateful nation.
But gradually things changed. Time lent perspective.
In late 1982 I visited a grassy incline just north of the reflecting pool on the mall in Washington, D. C. during Veterans Day weekend. The day before President Ronald Reagan dedicated the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, I walked through the tent city which had formed around the site and took in the stuff of life. I saw things that endure, things that matter, things that money can't buy and things those who possess them would never give up.
I remember walking the length of the polished chevron, deep in reflection even as I saw myself reflected from within the names of those who perished. The chevron formed a deepening gash in the earth, and as I turned uphill from the fulcrum I remember wondering how America could ever emerge from the severity of such loss.
And just then, I saw a businessman in a three-piece suit pause as a grungy, dirty, bearded man in worn fatigues emerging from his one-man tent hailed him. The men stood facing each other wordlessly, suspended in time, searching each other's faces. And then they embraced, sobbing and unashamed. They'd been brothers in Vietnam, you see. They'd had each other's backs when it mattered most, when all the chips were down.
They were veterans.
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.