We are all in this together

Published 8:32 pm Saturday, July 8, 2017

By John Railey

My father told me this story about his Navy days in the South Pacific in World War II, ferrying Marines in to fight Japanese soldiers on remote islands.

My father, a lieutenant, befriended a Marine officer from Mississippi. They swapped stories about their similar backgrounds, my father having left behind the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his friend having left behind the University of Mississippi at Oxford.

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My father never mentioned his friend’s politics to me. That didn’t matter. They were in the boat together, fighting to survive. They rolled along together through the South Pacific, boys becoming men, swapping stories.

On the night before an invasion, the Marine told my father he should ride in with them on their Marine tanks. My father, courageous to the point of recklessness, was ready to go. An older Navy hand told my father he could not go, he was too needed on their ship, that those Marines would be killed the next day.

My father’s friend was indeed killed. I think that memory stuck with my father right up until the day he died in the summer of 2004. He wasn’t there with his friend. But he was there for his shipmates, through typhoons and Japanese bombers blowing up ships beside theirs. And he was always there for me. Had he ridden in with his friend, I wouldn’t be here.

Steven Spielberg’s 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan” is built on such issues. At the end, a World War II vet saved in a special mission by his buddies after all his biological brothers were killed revisits the Normandy cemetery where his buddies and so many others are buried and asks his wife to confirm that he’d been a good man, that his friends’ mission to save him had been worth it. Of course she affirmed he was a good man.

So was my father. I took him to see “Saving Private Ryan,” one of the few movies he ever went to. He told me most of it was realistic. Probably too much so for him.

After the Big War, after going to the University of Virginia School of Law on the GI Bill, my father was there for underdogs of all stripes, including whites and blacks of modest means. Stand up for the underdogs, he often told me. He loved to reunite with his shipmates, most of whom were blue-collar workers.

We need to dig out the stories from our past that define our common thread. My father knew that the South of his times was, as sure as its shotgunned signs, still riddled with inequalities. He fought back.

We all know the conventional wisdom, that my father’s was the greatest generation. But we’ve had multiple greatest generations, including those of great warriors such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Chief Joseph, as well as Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Abraham Lincoln and Gen. Ulysses Grant.

They swirl in our history, with Lincoln and Grant getting so much right on defeating slavery and so much wrong on Indian treatment. And we may have lost another potential greatest generation to the war on terror.

This mix has always been the story of this country of ours, this experiment whose leaders have constantly tinkered with the best ideas of democracy. From our beginning, we have been wild and tough lovers of freedom, somehow balancing all our impulses, the liberal and the conservative and all in between.

From the Southern sin of slave labor to the rip-off of Indians, we’ve often risen above it all, finding redemption in large part because of the forgiving nature of the descendants of Indians and African-Americans and poor-white indentured servants.

What we’ve lost now is that forgiving nature and that unity. We fail all before who held high the freedom torch.

We should remember that we are all in this big American boat together.

JOHN RAILEY is the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, which first published this column. He grew up in Courtland.