Nation’s veterans embody America’s true greatness Listen to the wisdom of the ages. Listen to the words of many sages.
— Elvis Presley
I knew I was in for a treat Labor Day morning when my meeting with a group of six octogenarians featured this great line from ringleader Silas Barnes:
“You know what the worst thing is about getting older?” he asked, and his companions — fellow ex-World War II prisoners of war Lee James and John Henry Daniels and the three veteran soldiers’ wives: Palma James, Ellen Barnes and Lucille Daniels — started throwing out various well-researched answers.
“No,” Barnes quipped. “It’s the fact that it cuts into your dancing time.”
The three men are among four remaining active members of the Southwest Georgia chapter of American Ex-POWs. (The fourth is Charles McGhee.) Following a suggestion by my buddy Levine, a regular at Ryan’s restaurant where the Ex-POW chapter meets on the first Monday of each month for a luncheon and the swapping of war stories, I sat down with these amazing men to talk about their experiences in German and Japanese prison camps during the Great War.
I’m better for the experience.
There was more history in the words of these three American heroes than there is in the majority of history books that are used to “teach” our children about events that changed the world and made the United States the power that it remains today. I was spellbound by the tales of bravery — and humor, I think it would be impossible to survive a wartime prison camp without the capacity to find humor in the worst of situations — that these warriors told casually, as if what they had done was no big deal.
On the day after we reflected on the terror that 11 years ago destroyed our nation’s innocence forever and claimed the lives of almost 3,000 of our fellow countrymen and women — a day that, like one of our truly great presidents once said, will forever live in infamy — I’d like to suggest to Silas Barnes and Charles McGhee and John Henry Daniels and Lee Smith that what they endured for this country — for all of us enjoying our freedom today — was a big deal. A very big deal indeed.
With its seduction by what Living Colour called the “cult of personality,” America has become a nation that worships youth. Our quest to hold on to that coveted quality — real and sadly perceived — earns cosmetics companies, fad diet developers and any quack with a scheme to separate a fool and his money in his a search for the ever-elusive fountain of youth billions of dollars a year.
Sadly, in our efforts to look younger, feel younger, be younger, we’ve tossed aside the valuable remnants of the Greatest Generation, relagating them to relic status and dusting them off only on special occasions. Once we’re done, we prefer they go back into hiding until further needed. We don’t want any reminders of time passing.
What our youth-starved nation fails to realize is that by refusing to listen to the wisdom of experience, we lessen ourselves. Because we consider ourselves too busy to learn from the stories of our grandparents, our elder statesmen and women, and the older people we meet in our hurrying to and fro, we leave ourselves “doomed to repeat the sins of our past.”
If you’re a regular at Ryan’s or just one of the thousands of area worker bees looking for somewhere to grab a meal on the first Monday of any coming month, may I make a suggestion? Look in one of the meeting rooms of the popular restaurant on Westover Boulevard and see if there’s a small group of elderly diners dressed in matching vests.
I’m certain they wouldn’t mind your interrupting their meeting to tell them thank you for their service. It’s the least you can do for men who did for this country the most they could do ... and then some.
Email Carlton Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org.