Remembering the past in a New Year

Published 12:12 am Sunday, January 3, 2016

I grew up on a three-legged stool — a solid foundation of church, family and school. Each leg was part of a patriotic nationalism that espoused Judeo-Christian values and a reverential respect for our past.

If the church told me that stealing was wrong and honesty the best policy, my family and school reinforced those ethical precepts. Seldom were church, school and family out of synch.

I entered kindergarten in 1944, just three months after the D-Day invasion. I had no idea where Normandy was, nor did I know that farm boys from Ohio and Indiana and someone’s sons from Maine, Tennessee and Texas were dying on Omaha Beach so that I might safely go to school and salute the flag each morning.

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When my father worked late at the shop to keep the war effort going — and fell down an elevator shaft, breaking his leg and an arm — I didn’t know why my mother worried so or why dad wasn’t coming home at night. Only in my later adult years, did I begin to understand these things.

I never had to sacrifice like others did. Our first house was purchased from a family who lost two sons on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. My brother’s high school buddy was an army medic in Korea. His unit was overrun south of Soule, and Leigh spent three years as a POW, dropping to 80 pounds but surviving to return home in one piece. I never had to sacrifice like others did.

My experiences growing up were not unusual — they were the norm. Most families endured hard times during the Depression and made sacrifices during war time — right up through Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. People did what had to be done.

This America of my youth — both hardscrabble but often idyllic like a Norman Rockwell painting — was not perfect. A progressive movement to gain and grant equal rights to every man, woman and child has made us a better country and more just society.

But such movements often overshoot the mark, damaging the good as well as correcting the unjust. Old-fashioned values and institutions (think family, marriage, education, religion and law enforcement) sometimes get trampled, even mocked and derided as out of step with modern times and trends. An old saying admonishes us not to tear down a fence until we know why it’s there. Maybe that fence just needed patching and some paint rather than being torn down and discarded.

I’ve also seen such protests evolve into violence in places like Northern Ireland. And radical Islamic terrorism has shown us a truly evil way to let frustration influence, educate and brainwash young people. I prefer putting our youth on an old-fashioned three-legged stood of American values and letting church, family and school do the job.

As we enter another new year, let’s appreciate past sacrifices made for our benefit — and educate the younger generation about the best part of American history. There’s a useful purpose to having heroes, even if they were real people with human flaws rather than comic-book superheroes and fictional icons.

Those faces on Mount Rushmore — yes, all old, dead white men — laid a foundation for both having and improving the best system ever devised for a group of freedom-loving people. Women and people of color should be added to our list of heroes, and we’ve made a start with Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman and Eleanor Roosevelt among others.

A recent article on Pearl Harbor brought a reply from a navy veteran whose ship passed the site where the USS Arizona had sunk; the hull was still protruding out of the water and oil leaking to the surface. Every man on the passing ship immediately came to the deck and held a silent salute for three full minutes. Let’s honor our nation with the same reverential respect in this New Year.


James F. Burns, a native Ohioan, is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida.