Thursday, March 3, 2011

From One Generation to Another

When I was a little boy of maybe seven or eight, I remember my father taking me to the Veteran’s Day parade in Manhattan and pointing out that there were veterans of the Spanish-American War marching right past us. I don’t recall being exceptionally impressed. Or maybe I was in some subliminal way—I do remember the incident fifty years later, after all—but I’m still almost sure it didn’t feel like a big deal to me at the time. This would have been in 1960 or 1961, I think. The Spanish-American War was fought more than sixty years earlier in 1898. Soldiers who charged up San Juan Hill in their twenties would have been in their eighties when I saw them on Fifth Avenue. So there were these old guys marching up the avenue, I think I would have thought…so what? Nor was I too impressed when my father attempted to set things into more interesting perspective by telling me that he himself could recall being a little boy in the 1920s—my dad was born in 1916—and seeing elderly Civil War veterans marching in the same parade. The parade would have been a new feature of New York life back then, the first one having taken place in 1919. But the Civil War ended in 1865, so, say, a nineteen-year-old at Appomattox would have been born in 1846 and then in his eighties when my father could certainly have seen him marching up Fifth Avenue most of a lifetime later. I don’t recall this revelation making that much of an impression on me either, however.

But the things our parents tell us when are children are never quite as gone as all that and I was brought back to that conversation with my dad a few days ago when I read the obituary in the paper of Frank Woodruff Buckles, the last remaining American veteran of the First World War, who died last Sunday at age 110. He had a long life and a correspondingly long obituary. Buckles, I learned as I read, was born on the first of February in 1901 and was just a boy of sixteen when he lied about his age and, after crossing the Atlantic on the S.S. Carpathia (the ship that a few years earlier had picked up the survivors of the Titanic), joined the American Expeditionary Force in France as an ambulance driver. So he only caught the tail end of the Great War, but had even worse luck years later when he found himself in Manila when the Japanese occupied the Philippines shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequently ended up spending more than four years in Japanese custody, a harrowing experience that lasted almost until the end of the war itself. But what caught my imagination were not Buckles’ recollections of France or the Philippines as much as his comment, mentioned only in passing in his obituary, that even at the end of his life he could still recall meeting veterans of the Crimean War when he briefly landed in England on his way to France.

The Crimean War! Now that was a long time ago. Do kids in school even learn about the Crimean War these days? In its day, it was a huge deal. Fought from 1853 to 1856, the war pitted the Russian Empire against a strange alliance of Britain, France, Turkey, Sardinia and the German Duchy of Nassau, and was started by, of all things, Napoleon III attempting to seize control of the Holy Land (as he would have called it) from the Turks. The Russians for some reason, probably because they were hoping to seize the property themselves, declared themselves opposed. One thing led to another. By the time it was all over more than a quarter million soldiers were dead as were, by some accounts, at least that many civilians. And in 1917, when Frank Buckles passed through England on his way to France, he met veterans of that almost forgotten war. I remember reading Tolstoy’s Sevastapol Sketches when I was younger and being fully engaged by the book and its exciting story lines and very expressive prose. But, aside from Tolstoy lovers, who remembers that there even was a Crimean War these days, let alone who fought in it or what it was all about? But let’s focus on Buckles’ meeting with those veterans in London and from there move on, as readers know I am always predisposed to do, into the realm of pure fantasy.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine those Crimean veterans Buckles met as young men meeting British soldiers returning from the New World after General Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown. Why not? Men who fought in the Crimean War in their twenties would have been born in the 1830s and surely could have known veterans of the American Revolution in their younger years! (Didn’t Melville’s title character Israel Potter spend the fifty years following the American Revolution schlepping around England before he finally found the means to return home to America?) And so do the walls that generally separate the generations collapse slightly before us as America mourns a man who in his youth met at least some men who in their own youths could certainly have met veterans of the American Revolution. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so long ago at all that colonial soldiers were coming home from Yorktown and savoring their victory as citizens of the newly independent United States. Could Frank Buckles really have had personal contact as a teenager with someone who himself could have known someone who had fought under General Washington? It seems so!

Buckles was 110 when he died and it appears certain that he was America’s last surviving doughboy. He was, however, not the last living veteran of World War I. A certain Charles Choules, who served in the Royal Navy, and a woman, Florence Green, once a member of Britain’s Women’s Royal Air Force, are still alive and are believed now to be the only living people to have served in any capacity at all during the First World War. (The women in the Women’s Royal Air Force did not fly planes, by the way. Instead, they trained as airplane mechanics and drivers, the idea being to free men who normally did those jobs for military service elsewhere. Florence Green is the sole surviving member of the organization, which was disbanded in 1920.) Who they may or may not have met in their lifetimes, who knows? But I find myself focused not on the detail that there are two other First World War veterans still among the living. Far more interesting to me is the thought that our last surviving American veteran was when he died not merely a very old man and one of the few surviving survivors of a terrible war that in the end resulted in upwards of sixteen million deaths, but that he was a link to the past in a way that is as romantic to contemplate as it is slightly hard to believe.

The words “from generation to generation” appear and reappear in our liturgy, always reminding worshipers that the experience of communal prayer is intended to link them not only to others in the world to pray but also to countless generations stretching back into the past and (in a way slightly more difficult to fathom) forward into the future. There is a certain satisfaction in that thought, but we rarely pause to consider the concept itself of generations being interlinked. Surely, we are linked to our great-grandparents and (please God) to our great-grandchildren through ritual and belief. But we are also linked to them by people like the late Frank Buckles who somehow transcend the normal lifespan of most people—the man was 110 when he died, after all—and through some unexpected combination of happenstance, good fortune, and opportunity serve as physical links to the past in a way that no monument or battlefield ever could. Did my father, who only died in 1999, really in his lifetime encounter Civil War veterans? The grandparents of those veterans could certainly have served in the Colonial Army as well!

I remember when I was in rabbinical school one of our professors saying that modern Jewish history—or at least modern Jewish intellectual history—begins in 1204 with Maimonides’ death. Now that feels like a long time ago. But if two full centuries could collapse in my mind into a handful of encounters simply by reading a single obituary, so, really, what’s another six? The great-grandparents of soldiers who fought with Washington in the Battle of Long Island in August of 1776, after all, could surely have been born a mere two or three hundred years or so after the great-grandchildren of Maimonides’ great-grandchildren could still have been alive!

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