A day of remembrance for the heroic dead: And a celebration, too

BY THE WAY - Max V. Soliven () - May 25, 2003 - 12:00am
LOS ANGELES, California – Last Tuesday, when the United States government elevated the nationwide "terror alert" to Orange Status, meaning a terrorist attack might possibly occur, but with no specific target identified, I arrived in New York City on the ACELA train from Washington, DC to find almost all New Yorkers ignoring the warning.

Increasing the alert level to "orange", meaning high risk, from "yellow" or elevated risk, was announced by the Department of Homeland Security, but it seems nobody noticed.

The only detected hitch, as far as I was concerned, was when our train was temporarily halted at the last station before New York, namely the Penn Station in Newark, New Jersey, pending approval from the police for the train to proceed.

It turns out that all trains in the Pennsylvania train station in New York City had been ordered to "wait", while soldiers swarmed into the station, and the police conducted an "investigation". Several firetrucks pulled up outside. Twenty-five minutes later, however, our ACELA train got word to proceed.

When we pulled into Penn Station in New York, it looked as if nothing at all had happened. Commuters were jamming the platforms on all three levels, concerned only with getting their luggage on or off arriving or departing trains. Frantic passengers with too many suitcases or trunks were trying to flag down the few remaining "redcaps" or porters for help in transporting their stuff. Shoppers crowded the adjoining malls. The queue for yellow taxicabs outside the station was half a mile long.

In short, there was no sign of fear or confusion over any alleged "terrorist" threat. It was chaos as usual in Manhattan.

During the next three days, there was no discernible anxiety either. The restaurants and deli’s were full of customers. The sidewalk cafés were doing a roaring business. Bistros and bars were open till late at night. The cabbies – most of them either Africans (just off the boat), Latinos, Indians, and Asians – were surly as ever.

Nobody inspected diners entering eateries, or checked their handbags or backpacks.

On Broadway, the theatre-goers were as numerous as ever. We went to a marvelous musical starring Antonio Banderas (yes, he can sing) of The Mask of Zorro, Evita, The 13th Warrior, and Spy Kids fame. The musical at the Eugene O’Neill theater was called Nine, but the critics had rewarded Banderas’s performance with a Ten rating. Banderas was in his element, surrounded by beautiful women, all beautifully emoting and singing, too. The audience gave the cast a standing ovation.

What was notable was that there were no security checks – either among the hundreds queuing outside, or entering the theater. Osama could have waltzed in with a ticket, deposited something explosive, and left without challenge.

The next musical we saw was the award-winning Hairspray, one of the top Broadway hits, an exuberant, joyful, nostalgic, terrifically corny musical, recreating the America of 1962, before the Vietnam War deflated America’s mood with its tragedy and passion. It brought a lift to the heart, a laugh to the lips, and an occasional tear to the eye. I noticed the audience was composed, for the most part, of the aging generation of Baby Boomers – but the young ones also looked like they loved it. I noticed, as well, that there were no security checks or paranoia either.
* * *
In truth, all over the Big Apple it was frenzy as usual, but of the normal variety. They weren’t even excited over the wedding yesterday of New York’s hero and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani to his "companion", Ms. Judith Nathan, in the Gracie Mansion, presided over by the Mayor himself, Michael R. Bloomberg.

When my wife and I went to JFK airport to take our United Airlines flight to LAX (Los Angeles), there were no stringent security measures in force there either. Of course, the security men and women patted down passengers carefully, and we had to send everything through the X-ray machines, including shoes and belt, but there were no hassles at all.

Five hours later, on arrival at L.A. International (LAX), Customs and security simply waved all 200 passengers from our UA Boeing 767-200 through without hesitation. Why, some of those fellows were even smiling.

Will such a relaxed attitude be shattered by some terrorist outrage anywhere? Hope not. But one thing is clear. Americans aren’t scared. Perhaps they should be. Yet, courage and fortitude are what are hymned in their national anthem – "the home of the brave", and "the land of the free".
* * *
Here we are, in California, the Land of the Freeways. It was glorious to come from New York’s chill and rain into the sunshine of the Golden State. The skies are blue, the days are sunny but cool. No wonder this super-state on the Pacific lives up to its song, California Dreaming.

We rushed down here from the Eastern Seaboard to escape the rush. As early as Friday night and yesterday, 60 million Americans were on the move, on the highways, at the airports and in the air, enroute to holiday destinations. For this is the Memorial Day weekend.

Memorial Day is one of America’s most celebrated dates, traditionally commemorated on the last day of May. This year it falls on Monday (tomorrow), May 26.

All over the USA there will be parades, featuring displays of massed flags and marching veterans and servicemen from the armed services. This is a day of remembrance, on which Americans honor the men and women who fought and died in the country’s defense. It‘s also an excuse for many to take advantage of the three-day hiatus to hie off to holiday resorts, including Hawaii, in this kick-off to the summer season.

This year, coming as it does on the heels of the War in Iraq, Memorial Day ceremonies, and the parades on the main streets of city and town, are expected to be better-attended and more solemn. It’s admirable, I must say, how Americans venerate their fallen servicemen, and fly their flag, and pay tribute to the valor of those who served.

By coincidence, we were with Tom Brokaw at last Monday night’s White House dinner. He’s the well-known NBC television anchor ("NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw") who’s won so many DuPont, Emmy and other awards, that they’re probably cluttering up his living room. He’s also the author of that runaway bestseller which inspired so many subsequent books, sequels, novels, commentaries, movies and TV series, "The Greatest Generation." In that volume, Brokaw had spoken of the generation of men and women who lived through World War II, winning through to victory by dint of sacrifice, perseverance, bravery, fortitude, idealism and hope. They did their duty, he had argued, because they loved their people, their country, and were thankful for the freedom they enjoyed in their homeland.

I first met Brokaw three years ago, when he addressed our International Press Institute (IPI) world congress in Boston, Massachusetts. He was one of our speakers in a series of sessions which included Henry Kissinger, Chris Patten, and several other prominent "thinkers", journalists, and politicians, including the Mayor who plied us with tons of lobsters and delicious bowls of – what else (?) – Boston clam chowder.

Brokaw is, of course, a very good friend of US President George "Dubya" Bush, so it was no surprise he had been invited to the gala dinner for our President GMA. Bush really went all the way to honor La Gloria, asking his Vice President and all the heavy-hitters in his Cabinet to attend despite their busy schedules. Some of them (including Colin Powell to Paris) had to fly off to capitals around the world the very next morning.
* * *
According to a USA Today report from Bushnell, Florida, the World War II veterans of Brokaw’s "Greatest Generation" are dying at a rate of about 1,000 per day.

At Florida’s National Cemetery, the newspaper says, "about 30 veterans…are interred every day."

What is edifying, in my mind, are the touching letters written to newspapers every Memorial Day by readers who wish to salute their heroes in some tangible form. Mary Alice Altofer wrote from Carpinteria, California:

"Memorial Day drapes a flag of remembrance over a roll call never answered. Records in stone acknowledge the count, and small white markers march in uniform rows.

"The stillness in a military cemetery remedies wounds, the bleeding now minimized to tears. It is a place where hesitant fingers trace a name, spelling out the memory of a shortened life.

"Memorial Day is the summary of war and an annual salute to heroes. The spirit of patriotism is not interred with its champions; it breathes every time Old Glory unfurls."

Another reader – Robert L. Bronson – writes from Florida:

"As we celebrate Memorial Day, I’d like to express my gratitude to all of the brave, young service members who protect America’s way of life."

He goes on to say: "President Bush has been criticized by well-meaning but misguided individuals for going to war against Saddam Hussein’s regime.

"Some critics even cited religious reasons for being against war: God didn’t sanction war to bring peace, they argued. But let‘s remember one thing: When a soldier dies in battle, we’re comforted by the biblical text that reads, ‘Greater love hath no man than this: That a man lay down his life for his friends’."

I hope, in our own Memorial Day, our
Araw ng Kagitingan, our nation will learn to thank and honor the men and women who, in like manner, laid down their lives for us, and the liberty we now enjoy.

I failed to write a tribute to my late mother on Mother’s Day, but I will never forget what she said to me one day. She had been granted "military backpay" from the US government for her work in the guerrilla underground against the occupying Japanese. Somebody had forged her name on the payroll ledger and taken all the money.

As a war widow, with nine small children she had, indeed she needed the funds. Yet, she had no regrets. She had, after all expected recompense or reward.

"Son," she had explained to me, "You must always remember this: You don’t put a price-tag on what you do for your country."

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