The last week of August always brings an air of finality for me. In the mid-20th Century, many Georgia school systems waited until after Labor Day to begin the academic year. So, for those who remember Ford unveiling the Edsel, the last week of August still represents the true end of summer.
Monumental events which occurred at the end of August provoke a little separation anxiety, too. For example, Russia's invasion of Georgia awakened memories which never slumber far below consciousness for me, and for any American who grew up during the Cold War.
In late August 1968, the Soviet Union sent tanks and troops into Czechoslovakia to crush a brief moment of enlightenment. Virtual prisoners in their own land behind what Sir Winston Churchill termed the Soviet Union's "iron curtain" across post-World War II eastern Europe, Czechs had sought new measures of personal and political liberty during what was called "the Prague Spring."
But the USSR would have none of it. Tanks and troops poured into Czechoslovakia, just as they poured into Georgia 14 days ago. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Even as Czechs pleaded for help from the West, the Communists buried Czechoslovakia as the free world stood idly by. Nero fiddled while Rome burned.
Speaking of Rome, on Aug. 24, A.D. 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted near the city of Pompeii. The pyroclastic flow of ash moved so quickly citizens were killed and preserved on the spot, providing a modern snapshot of ancient everyday life.
Now that's real separation anxiety.
Constituting political anxiety, Congress ratified the 19th Amendment in August 1920, giving women the right to vote. Some 88 years later, women's suffrage has had an obvious impact. The jury's still out on how "nobody's happy if momma ain't happy" will translate into results for the 2008 Presidential election. But there's clearly no doubt "I am woman, hear me roar" is more than just an old pop song lyric.
The final days of August 1963 saw historic events unfold. Thousands packed Washington's mall and surrounded the reflecting pool on the 28th as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of history's most important speeches. His "I Have a Dream" speech has reverberated for 45 years this week, but at times it seems America has lost the message.
"I have a dream," King said, "that one day my four little children will be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
What a dream, indeed. Folks making their own way in the world, standing on their own merit, free to succeed or fail, and without Federal bailout programs.
Talk about separation anxiety. The thought of an America devoid of entitlements likely brings apoplexy to any devotee of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society," replete with Federal programs literally sustaining folks from the cradle to the grave.
Two days after King's 1963 speech, a direct telephone line between the White House and Moscow's Kremlin was installed. Designed to let our president and the Soviet premier talk in times of urgency to circumvent nuclear war, the hotline was never used and was removed after the demise of the Soviet Union.
I'm thinking Russia's warning that America risks war if an anti-missile defense shield is constructed over Poland might merit a quick search through the White House attic for that old phone. But who would the president talk to in the Kremlin? Who really holds the power in Russia?
The last week of August 1997, witnessed the death of one of the world's most popular figures. Lady Diana, Princess of Wales, perished in a Paris car wreck on the 31st. Events leading up to and proceeding from, Diana's tragic demise will likely continue to be scrutinized ad infinitum; such was the world's separation anxiety from losing a lady of such charm and grace.
My preoccupation with the last week in August has a more personal connection, however, dating back to 1968.
Forty years later, it's still difficult to grasp my daddy died on that particular 27th day. In the spring, open heart surgery at Emory replacing a mitral valve damaged at birth by rheumatic fever had gone well; he'd come home and returned to work. Back at Emory for an August checkup, however, Daddy suffered a cerebral hemorrhage.
Life support was hooked up immediately; Emory kept the body working. But in Daddy's room late one night, I felt a physical rush of inner peace and clearly recognized the sound of the respirator and the clickety-clack of the mechanical mitral valve was all that was there.
The world had not yet heard of Karen Ann Quinlan in 1968. Doctors and families, not judges, were still in charge of patient care. Daddy had left the building, and the only thing left to do was to turn out the lights. As solace, the moment the plug was pulled, the shell of his body came to complete rest.
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. Forty more last weeks of August have rolled around, and with them the anniversaries of Pompeii's burial, women's suffrage, "I Have a Dream" and the hotline phone, the Soviet's attempt to crush liberty in Czechoslovakia, and the loss of Lady Diana.
But, Lord, how I do miss my daddy. Even so, it's a joy to recount his short, sweet philosophy for living.
Daddy would say, every once in a while: "Life is short, son. You need to live and learn."
He'd pause until I stopped whatever I was doing and actually met his eyes. Then Davis Gray Harwell Jr., would say again, pausing just right for emphasis:
"Live. And learn."
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.