This week gives us something to think about.
As we approach the anniversary of events that forced America’s emergence as a global power, we say farewell to a member of what Tom Brokaw neatly identified as our greatest generation.
It is a week of remembrance of war, cold war, peace, prosperity, social progress — and regression. As we pay honors to a former president, the headlines are full of news about the current office holder being run to ground. What a dichotomy.
Some irony, too. George H.W. Bush was an honorable man with odious responsibilities. He was elected because he was a good Republican, a party soldier, past head of the GOP, a war hero, an ambassador on the world stage, leader of the nation’s intelligence agency, two-term vice president, and all-around nice guy with a storybook marriage and family. And he was denied a second term because the new breed of Republicans undermined him for not being partisan enough.
The Rabid Right, raucous and rough, wanted a tougher approach to governance, both at home and abroad.
Again, there’s the irony. Bush was one of the youngest of Americans to join the military ranks after the raid on Pearl Harbor, when worldwide nationalism and dictatorship forced our elected leaders to acknowledge we could no longer live in isolation. We had been luckier than Europe’s free countries because our moats were wider — the Atlantic and the Pacific. But events proved those moats were not and would never again be wide enough. Complacency was gone. No more sitting out the tough stuff.
Whether we like it or not, the course of the future of the United States will be as a global participant, not an isolated port where corporations can call shots and count profits.
The Stage Door Canteen in Connellsville, Pa., will take you back to those days. To describe the ambiance, I would say take the dining room of the Buttersburg Inn in Union Bridge and marry it with the Carroll County Historical Society.
About the size of Hanover, the western Pennsylvania river town was a railroad stop that saw thousands of sailors and soldiers pass through during World War II. Local volunteers served coffee and doughnuts, and did what they could to ease journeys into the unknown or back from the unthinkable.
Today, the canteen serves lunch to tour groups and other visitors who are surrounded by walls of memorabilia of that era. There are the usual flags — one, it is claimed, was a Nazi swastika taken from Hitler’s crumbled quarters — uniforms, arms, shadow boxes containing correspondence to and from loved ones.
But the dominant effect are the faces in uniforms of all branches of the service. Young men, mostly, but women, too, who served America and the world as best they could with all they had.
You could sit there and never be able to tell which of them were Republicans or which were Democrats. Certainly, the walls were covered with the faces of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, white and black, all of them smiling as if their photo was for the high school yearbook.
There were farm kids and city boys, second-generation immigrants with names rooted in Poland, Russia, Italy, Ireland, Germany, and “All-American” kids who looked like they belonged in Scout camp instead of boot camp.
I know what some of them were thinking. Hoping. Fearing.
Some would say they were there to serve America. Some might have understood, eventually, that since we don’t live in isolation, we had to help save the world to serve America.
That was how my week started. It was a week that was a century.
And the drama continues.