07 December 2006

Infamy, history and memory

The MacDill AFB PX (or, I suppose, BX in Air Force Speak) can be a strange place. This time of year, the snowbirds are in for the winter, and it's nigh on impossible to wander around the PX without getting stuck behind a pack of slow-moving retirees. I normally try not to be too bitter about this, figuring that if I'm lucky, I too will be old and slow-moving someday.

Once in a while I step around some codger moving at a glacial pace, and glance back at him only to be amazed.

See, these are old military people. Old war dogs. And you forget about that until you look back at some little old guy who's wearing a Pearl Harbor Survivor cap. Jesus God, I always think. We think of it as history, but for some guys still out there walking around, it's a memory that probably still comes at night.

I had the good fortune to get to visit Pearl Harbor as a side trip of a Marine Corps mission some years ago. It's a beautiful sight, and if you get the opportunity to see it, you should. There's still oil surfacing from the ships, 65 years later. There are still Sailors and Marines in those ships.

And once in a while, out walking around, you run into the boys who made it off the ships. Of course, if you think about it, that wasn't the end of the war for most of them. Some of the ships were raised, and all of the Sailors who could went on to see that war to the end.

On December 7, 1941, they weren't old men, and they weren't yet "the greatest generation." They were just boys, Sailors and Marines, doing Sailor and Marine things (that is, drinking and chasing women).

Remember that with the old folks in the store and the parking lot. You never know. I pass old-folk cars in the parking lot that have WWII stickers and "ex-POW" license plates. I nod at old men in the exchange who have no legs. I get cut off in the commissary line by tiny old ladies who patched up soldiers under barrages of artillery in European mud.

For some of them, it ain't history, it's a memory. Thank them while you still can. And remember that every image you see on tonight's news from Iraq and Afghanistan is a memory for one of our modern warriors. Thank them, too.