Tag Archives: great depression

On This Veterans Day

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Dad (21 years old)

In 1975 nobody learned to read in kindergarten. Reading was a first-grade subject then, and kindergarten was for learning how to make friends and drink milk out of cardboard cartons. But somehow I could read before starting kindergarten. I remember sitting on my sister’s lap at age four and reading a Cookie Monster book from start to finish. Sandy tossed me off her lap and ran away yelling, “Mom! Al just read a book!” My earliest memory is being described as smart.

I was a hit in kindergarten. We would watch Sesame Street in the classroom, and when the part of the show arrived where a word would magically come together my classmates would sit breathlessly until I proclaimed it aloud as if royalty making a grand decree. “The word is…CHICKEN!” And the class would cheer. Heady stuff for a five-year-old kid.

My “smarts” had an obvious genetic component since both mom and dad were intelligent, although dad had some special Rainman-like quality when it came to mathematics, something I apparently inherited to a lesser but notable degree. Dad was also a high school dropout.

Dad studied Latin in high school in Missouri in the 1930s and hoped to be a physician. Without his knowledge, his principal worked to secure him an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy sometime around 1937, but Dad turned it down since it was the Great Depression and he was the oldest child. He then dropped out of high school to work.

Pearl Harbor was bombed the day after Dad’s twenty-first birthday. He had heard horror stories of trench warfare from old men in the “Great War” and was enamored with the Navy anyway, so he chose to enlist. Dad took a train from Union Station in St. Louis to Chicago for processing and did so well on a particular test that the Navy wanted him in an electrician school that was starting right away in San Francisco, so he boarded another train and left for war. He was gone for four years, but thankfully for many of us, he was among those who did come home.

Dad served on a variety of battleships and carriers in the Pacific Theater, and I regret never recording which ones since I believe his records were among 16-18 million files destroyed in a tragic fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis in July 1973 (although I haven’t given up hope yet). What I do remember is that he served in the Battle of Midway, the turning point of the war in the Pacific, and the subject of current feature film at the box office—a movie I obviously have to see.

Today is Veterans Day. And if you can’t tell, I am thinking about Dad. I suspect many of you have someone to think about, too.

Country

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“The goal in sacred story is always to come back home, after getting the protagonist to leave home in the first place! A contradiction? A paradox? Yes, but now home has a whole new meaning, never imagined before.” – Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (pp. 87-88)

Growing up I associated two things with Nashville: Churches of Christ and country music. The former was familiar, but even as a young person I was drawn toward things that were unfamiliar. And the latter was something my dad listened to in the car (other than a brief Randy Travis stage, I did not choose to listen to a lot of country music). So I never pictured myself in Nashville.

But when our potential move emerged, I was surprised how much I was drawn to the city itself. It felt like I would learn a lot about myself in Nashville, who I am, where I come from, and the meaning of the word “home.”

Still, it was surprising to think that country music had a role to play. Sure, moving to ground zero of Churches of Christ would involve introspection, but country music? Somehow I just knew that would prove important, too. Little did I know that famed filmmaker, Ken Burns, was putting the finishing touches on a new documentary miniseries to help me out.

If you have not been following Country Music on PBS, I suggest you find a way to catch up. Simply learning that the banjo came from African slaves and the fiddle came from European immigrants in Appalachia was worth tuning in. Country music is just that—an amalgam of this complicated country—and learning its history is helpful in understanding America if nothing else.

I had unfortunately never heard of DeFord Bailey, the first performer ever introduced on what became known as the Grand Ole Opry, and a grandson of slaves, and a harmonica genius. In fact, it was after Bailey’s brilliant rendition of a train on the show in 1927 (following a show that ended with the New York Symphony’s version) that announcer George Hay said, “For the past hour, we have been listening to music largely from Grand Opera, but from now on, we will present ‘The Grand Ole Opry.’” Bailey was unceremoniously fired in 1941 and spent the rest of his life shining shoes to make a living.

And speaking of 1941, I learned that country music was the favorite choice of soldiers during World War II, which provided a stunning realization as to why my dad always tuned in on the radio when I was a child. Country music must have walked my dad and a lot of people through tough times—the Great Depression, and a world at war. I also learned that it was World War II that propelled the Grand Ole Opry past other radio “barn dances” to its worldwide prominence. According to Burns, Japanese soldiers in the South Pacific were heard saying, “To hell with Roosevelt; to hell with Babe Ruth, and to hell with Roy Acuff.”

I’m not sure what I am learning about myself just yet, so if you are expecting me to weave this together in a perfect harmony that just isn’t going to happen today. What I do know, however, is that the banjo and fiddle are apparently providing the music that is serenading me toward home.