It is for us, the living rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.
Friday, June 4, 2010
Last Monday we celebrated Memorial Day, a day of remembrance for those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice as they defended the ideals this nation is founded upon, ideals of liberty, freedom, equality, and the inherent value and dignity of man. The concept of Memorial Day was birthed in the days following the Civil War, at the time referred to as Decoration Day, a time to go out and decorate the graves of the fallen and honor them for their sacrifice. Following WWI the vision was expanded as a day set aside to honor all those who have fallen in the fires of war. It was a significant day to work on the National Mall, surrounded by memorials to WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, with thousands of veterans making the pilgrimage to pay homage to fallen comrades. But for me, the significance of remembering the past had gone beyond May 31, and has been a major theme of these last two weeks. But even in the midst of remembering and honoring the past, I am keenly reminded of the hope and promise of the future.
As I write this I am sitting in the living room where I spent countless hours as a young child, adolescent, and teenager, learning what it meant to live a life of value and significance. I am surrounded by both icons of the past as well as symbols of the future. To my left is an old fireplace, around which we have oft gathered to celebrate Christmas and enjoy the comradery and fellowship inspired by the crackling flames. To my right is what in essence amounts to a shrine to my sister Callie who just yesterday made all of us proud as she walked across the stage and received a well-earned diploma only a day after her eighteenth birthday. Over the past few days I have been keenly reminded of a week nine years ago when I received a similar diploma only two days prior to my own eighteenth birthday. So even as I remember the past I also celebrate the wonder of the future.
We don't know how much time we have on this earth, and I am once again reminded of the importance of living every day well, remembering why it is that we are here on this earth. Our lives are surrounded by opportunities, opportunities for us to allow ourselves to be shaped either by despair and hopelessness, or by the touch of the better angels of our nature, which rises above the plains and pits of hell to the highest peaks of heaven. That phrase is one that I used in the final moments of my special program that I gave at the Lincoln Memorial as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain on several occasions during the month of May. I designed this program to simply be a special presentation that I would do as first person living history at the Lincoln Memorial on two different days (May 8 and 22)t, but on Sunday night one of the supervisors asked me if I would be willing to do the program the following day in special recognition of Memorial Day. I agreed and found myself dressed in a full wool Civil War uniform out in the 90+ degrees of Washington DC heat, surrounded by the thousands flooding the National Mall in celebration of the national holiday.
But the significance of Memorial Day went far beyond the floods of tourists that filled the city that day. The importance of remembering the past so that we might be better prepared to walk into the future transcends one particular day. In the week preceding Memorial Day weekend I celebrated my 27th birthday in the city of New York. Along with another ranger who happens to have the exact same birthday as myself I boarded a bus and traveled to the big apple, finding myself amidst the life and busyness of the city that never sleeps. In the few days that we were there we nearly never stopped, going from one thing to the next as we experienced great memorials to the past in the midst of a city moving us into the future. By playing the park ranger card we acquired comped tickets out to Liberty and Ellis Islands and were bumped to the front of an extensive line waiting to go out on the ferry, where we traveled to both islands and partook of ranger guided tours, exploring this history and significance of both islands. As I stood on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty looking toward the Manhattan skyline I was keenly aware of the notable absence of the twin towers, which were still present when I stood in the same place ten years ago. I had viewed pictures since 9/11 but seeing the difference in person brought new significance to the reality of what has changed. These last 8.5 years have seen many changes in this nation that have reshaped our role and position in the world, and there is no symbol more poignant than the area surrounding ground zero, forever transformed as this nation too has been changed.
Ground zero itself has the look of a construction site, but the area around it tells a story, both of the past, and of the future. St. Paul's chapel remains as powerful testimony to light shining through the darkness of the souls of man amidst pain, sorrow, and destruction as it catalogs the stories of hope and loss in the hours and days following the collapse. A nearby building is filled with images painting a picture of what the new WTC complex as well as the 9/11 memorial are to be. Part of that memorial includes a compendium of voices from all around the world, telling the story of 9/11 through their own experiences that day. I had the opportunity to record my own story, which I did, participating in telling the larger story of that day. I had left home to go to college in San Diego only two weeks previously, out on my own, uncertain in a new world, surrounded by the unknown. On the morning of September 11 I rose early to go run, but as I passed through the lobby of the dorm I saw a small group of students surrounding the television, and paused, curious what they were watching at this hour. It looked like a disaster movie, but was one I was unfamiliar with, so I paused longer, trying to determine what it was they were watching. As I stood there I suddenly realized that this was not a movie, but rather live coverage of New York, only a few minutes after the first tower was struck. I stood immobile, unable to tear my eyes away, watching as two second plane appeared and struck the second tower and then watching as first one and then the other collapsed and plummeted to the ground. I never did go to classes that day. It was the only time in five years of college that I skipped class, choosing instead to continue to watch the news coverage, knowing the significance of what was unfolding before me. It was especially impactful for me because I was watching this story 100 yards from the fence separating Point Loma's campus from one of the largest navy bases in the country, a prime target if someone was seeking to cripple the US military.
The story continues to unfold today as the repercussions of that single day radiate out ever wider on the world stage. As I stood there in New York I was keenly reminded of both those who have been lost and the many ways our world has been forever changed as a result. It was especially poignant, having just seen Federal Hall, where Washington was inaugurated as our first president, as well as Trinity Church and St. Paul's chapel, which have stood as sentinels since before this country even existed. The stories of the past are there, before us, calling out to us, that we might learn from them and so be better prepared to move into the future.
I also walked through the entirety of Central Park, toured FAO Schwartz, walked throughout times square, and visited the American Museum of Natural History, all iconic features of one of our original cities, telling the story of a diverse people that has become the United States of America. On our birthday we went to see "South Pacific," a classic Broadway production telling the story of America through the eyes of sailors stationed out in the South Pacific, trying to find their own meaning amidst the chaos of war. At night we returned to beds at a youth hostel, surrounded by people visiting from a slew of other countries, all drawn to this city as a symbol of America. And then we left this great symbol to journey back to another, the very heart of this nation, where I arrived just in time for Memorial Day weekend.
On Sunday night I viewed the special Memorial Day concert from the steps of the United States Capitol, sharing with thousands of others in honoring the fallen. The National Symphony Orchestra joined with many other artists in weaving a tapestry telling the story of America through the conflicts that have redefined our national identity. This tapestry included the personal stories of a man who owed his life to a friend who never came home from Korea because he had died to protect his comrades, as well as a woman who lost her husband in Iraq and has found new purpose by connecting with a woman who had lost her own husband in Vietnam. The music included not only standard patriotic songs, but also music from films such as "Saving Private Ryan," "We were soldiers," and "Band of Brothers." It was a moving and powerful tribute to both sacrifice and hope.
Then, as I portrayed Chamberlain on Memorial Day in the 90+ degree heat I spoke to many of the Vietnam Veterans and took pictures with a group of Gold Star Mothers who had come down to the wall for a special ceremony. At 3:00 I stood alongside a member of the President's Own as he played taps in honor of the fallen before delivering my special program one last time, in my own attempt to tell the story of those that paid the last full measure of devotion.