For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
June 2, 1999 - Memorial Day Musings
I remember very keenly the moment when I got my first deep glimpse into my father's life.
I was 17, not an age when most sons are in synch with their dads. We were eating dinner and talking about Viet Nam, my discomfort with the fact that I was, in all likelihood, about to get drafted.
I just wasn't sure what Viet Nam was all about. For one thing, my first real exposure had been in my high school's weekly ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) class. Every Wednesday, we watched Army report films that prominently featured the body bag count. It was sobering.
For another, the few people I knew that had gone, and returned, from Viet Nam were very damaged people, scarred by their experiences and convinced it was all a pointless exercise, a hell endured for no good purpose. That made an impression, too.
A third factor was something I'd seen earlier that day. Some anti-war protesters had held a demonstration, right after an ROTC exercise.
The protesters consisted of three groups: Viet Nam war veterans, some members of the Students for a Democratic Society, and some hangers-on. I would imagine that they numbered something like 200 people. The ROTC crowd, with parents, was three times that.
I had a front row seat to the whole thing. The protest was absolutely peaceful. The protesters showed up with signs and leaflets. They waited till the end of the demonstration, then chanted some anti-war slogans, shouted out a couple of emotional and hard-to-hear speeches, distributed leaflets, and that was about it.
Just when things were breaking up, when the protesters were heading home, police wagons screamed in. The police were wearing riot gear -- helmets, shields, and batons. They popped out of the wagons and began swinging. Standing on the sidelines, still wearing my corporal stripes, I watched a group of kids not much older than I was, beaten bloody. I'm talking about heads cracked open, kids dragged over asphalt and hurled bodily into paddy wagons. I remember the policemen laughing.
Later that night, the paper talked about our mayor's courageous decision to send in the troops to break up the communist demonstration. Our mayor had been a World War II veteran.
Well, my father was a WWII vet, too. But his war experience was very different from the 'Nam vets. For one thing, dad had been raised in near-primitive conditions, way back in the Ozarks. When his country called, just at the outbreak of World War II, he didn't even wait to finish high school. He joined the navy. It was an exciting time. As he later told me, in the navy, you got three square meals a day, stayed mostly clean and dry, and got to see some fairly interesting stuff.
More than that, three other key differences emerged between his time and mine. First, he was fighting Hitler, and the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. It was pretty clear who the bad guys were, what they had done, and why they had to be stopped.
Second, he got a hero's send-off, and a hero's welcome.
Third (and this goes back to that hero's welcome), America won. They saved the world for democracy.
Tom Brokaw recently wrote a book about my father's generation, The Greatest Generation. It captures many of that generation's accomplishments.
What it doesn't capture is a hard truth. When my dad's folks took over public institutions, they couldn't understand why young people didn't have the same feelings about their country they did. My father's generation responded to youthful challenges (whether anti-war or anti-segregation) with often brutal suppression, not much different, in my opinion, from China's response to the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
All of this is compounded by the fact that just last year, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, one of the chief apologists for the war in Viet Nam, flat-out admitted in HIS book (In Retrospect: The tragedy and Lessons of Viet Nam) that the anti- war protesters were right. The government sent in reluctant young men to be slaughtered in a war that was ill-defined and probably unwinable.
Such actions tend to undermine patriotism.
Now all of this may seem a most uncharitable reflection, just after Memorial Day. (I do think, by the way, that my father's generation eventually mellowed, and I do respect it for its accomplishments.)
But I prefer honesty to sentiment, objectivity to jingoism. On occasion, it seems to me that Americans have fought important wars for important causes, made ultimate sacrifices to decide vital matters. The Revolutionary War. The Civil War. World War II.
Americans have also died in wars that are shameful. The French Indian Wars. The Mexican War. Viet Nam.
My insight into my father's life was that if I had been born in his times, I would have had feelings and experiences much like his. If he had been born in my time, he would have shared MY world view. History is generational, not absolute. Each generation sees a different truth, reacts to a different set of circumstances.
Sometimes your nation is in the right, and service for it is a proud privilege. Sometimes your nation is in the wrong, and your dissent is an ethical obligation, however severe the penalties.
But in any case, all wars mean death, often of utter innocents. To those dead, and their devastated families, we can offer our deepest regard, our most profound sorrow.
We can also gather their stories, generational and personal, in that record of human experience that is the library.