Sunday, March 14, 2010

Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, The Last Samurai, the Korean War and WWII Veterans

Life continues to be an adventure with each new day. In less than two weeks things are going to become absolutely insane here in the park. March 27 marks the beginning of the two week "Cherry Blossom Festival." In preparation for the festival I had to come up with a special talk. I have been working on it for a while, and have spent the bulk of the last two nights finishing an outline which I have to turn in tomorrow. It ended up being seven pages altogether and was a successful amalgamation of an explanation of how the cherry trees got here, Samurai culture and how America helped lead to the demise of the Samurai, the movie "the Last Samurai" and Lord of the Rings. Now that doesn't sound like something I would come up with...

Yesterday I finally got to work at the Korean War Veteran's Memorial for the first time. I have been here for more than two months but until yesterday had never been posted at Korea. I ended up being sent there last minute yesterday and just so happened to be posted with the ranger who is, himself, a Korean War veteran. He is a very odd individual, but I certainly gained from the opportunity to speak with him about the war and his experience. It was raining heavily throughout the day yesterday so this other ranger elected not to go out and give any talks, which meant that it was on me to do it if it was going to happen. I had never been at the memorial before and have no talk prepared for the site, but I figured the best way to learn is to do it, so I went out and started talking to people. In addition to answering questions and chatting with visitors I ended up giving ten official talks, ranging in time from 10-35 minutes, all of which were in the rain. It was pretty exciting for me to realize that I could just show up at a site I had ever worked at before and succeed in holding the attention of ten separate groups while standing in the rain and helping them to understand why 33,000 Americans died in place called Korea between 1950-53. I am truly blessed.

This past Thursday Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg came to a special ceremony at the WWII Memorial to pay homage to veterans and to dedicate the new HBO series "The Pacific," the newest production of their collaboration concerning the war (following "Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers") which premiered tonight. I wasn't working that day, but I did walk down during my lunch, saw both Hanks and Spielberg at the memorial, and briefly spoke to a few of the nearly 300 veterans who has assembled for the event. Today I was posted at the WWII memorial. I didn't see Hanks and Spielberg, but I was blessed to have conversation with five different families representing various aspects of WWII.

#1-A Navy pilot and his wife, coming to the memorial for the first time. He never saw combat, but instead trained pilots here in the US during WWII. He retired from the army following the war, but was called back in 1952 to serve in the same capacity while preparing pilots in Korea.

#2-A woman brought her granddaughter to see the memorial representing her years in high school when she had to ration her food and worked in a factory to make army raincoats after school. She told me about the many friends who were represented by the 4048 stars on the wall of freedom (representing 404,800 American deaths during the war).

#3-An air force pilot came to the memorial with his son and his two grandsons, who had brought him from Iowa as a special birthday present so that he too could see the memorial to the greatest international crises in world history. He served in the pacific during Guadalcanal and subsequent battles and talked to me about how he had just left the USS Lexington before it was sunk, and how he had worked with the Marines that would be portrayed in the upcoming HBO series.  

#4-The deputy director of US Park Police brought his mother to the memorial. She grew up in the district, but had since moved away and never seen the memorial. She told me about the temporary navy facilities erected alongside the reflecting pool during the war and how she used to play in them with her friends when they were abandoned after the war.

#5-A 90 year old Marine was joined by his daughter and great granddaughter as they came to honor his service in the war as a radar programmer, one of very few who served in this capacity in the pacific during the war. 

In every case one member of the family had been radically affected by the war and had made the journey to this place with members of his/her family to pay respect to the memories and honor those who had paid the ultimate price. What does someone like me say to someone like that? I can think of little more than the simple words "thank you." 

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