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Starting Point

Pearl Harbor is history, around us is living history


Dec. 7, 1998, was the 57th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. At 7:55 a.m. on that date in 1941, the Japanese began a devastating 3-hour attack on the American naval base there. Six American battleships were sunk, over 2,400 people were killed and 1,100 more were wounded. For a generation of Americans, life would be forever different; for some of that generation, life would end.

But the date that President Roosevelt said would "live in infamy" eventually passed into the quiet of history. For the first time in my memory, no story of Pearl Harbor or its survivors appeared on the national television news. On a local channel, four or five old men gathered to honor a memory. Several wore caps proclaiming them "Pearl Harbor Survivors." A tape recorder played "Taps" as the old men struggled with their separate yesterdays.

A young reporter asked one of them why he was there. The old man leaned on his cane and answered that his presence was something he owed the dead. There were no spectators watching the ceremony, and before it was over the sky sunk like a lid on the day.

At Pearl Harbor there was a ceremony at the USS Arizona Memorial, directly over the wreckage where 1,177 crew members lost their lives and were entombed. A band played. A number of survivors remembered their comrades with words and tears. There were speeches, and a formation of F-15s flew over in the "missing man" formation. Flower petals were dropped down a well, and oil continues to leak a drop at a time from the ruins below, like a miser’s dark tears.

The military will continue to observe this sort of remembrance because its members still walk the thin red line and because the ceremonial recognition of battles won and lost is part of their tradition. Religion will remember because the living and the dead still need each other’s help and hope. History will remember because it continues to be made and recorded. Texans will remember the Alamo. There are other places that force themselves upon us, such as Yorktown, Gettysburg and Wounded Knee.

All of this, however, represents the artificial attempt to summon up a past that is no longer present. Then there is living history, that part of the past that still makes a live and hurting connection, still celebrated as only living memory can celebrate -- quietly, sorrowfully, prayerfully.

In my hometown there is a house with a faded and peeling gold star in a dusty window. At dawn and again at dusk the curtain parts and an old, careworn face looks out as though confirming the world’s existence -- confirming that nothing, yet everything, has changed. The gold star mother touches her emblem like an ancient relic, lets the curtain fall shut and then goes about her long wait. When it is late she turns on a small window light that burns till morning.

Her other son, the one who is living, checks on her daily, buys her groceries and takes her to Mass on Sundays and holy days. She dresses in black, wears a black mantilla and carries black rosary beads. She can no longer kneel and stand with the congregation but sits like something carved in stone -- a statue of sorrow, a 15th station.

Her lips are constantly moving, as though she were chewing on prayer. Her avowed mission is to walk Purgatory Street and pray the dead into Paradise. Her hands have moved across a million rosary beads, offered a thousand yesterdays on the altar of her hope.

As long as one such person remains, there is a living history, a memorial of breath, an umbilical cord to the past. As long as she remembers the living child that became the soldier’s bones, there is a living history.

One day there will be a last survivor and thus a last to remember. Branded into my memory is a picture of one of the last veterans of the Civil War, a fragile, almost transparent Union soldier on the steps of the state capitol in Albany, N.Y., on what used to be called Armistice Day. He leaned in a November wind and saluted what for him were living ghosts.

I was not much more than a boy at the time, but I remember thinking: Will he be the last, the very last? Is he the last living link with that part of our past? If I remember this man, honor him, can I in a sense extend his witness -- give him a few more springs and autumns, another chance to walk the fields at Gettysburg, through me?

It is these questions that not only keep my sympathetic nature intact but also keep me attending funerals, reunions and other ceremonies of remembrance, urging me in reflective moments to scan the crowd for the boy among us who will one day become father to the man.

Harry W. Paige writes from Potsdam, N.Y.

National Catholic Reporter, February 26, 1999