Sunday, June 06, 2004

Another strange day ...

Yesterday I drove out to the Richmond shoreline to participate in the grand opening of the Rosie National Park Interim Reception Center. It was a glorious day. I'd watched the early morning MSNBC D-Day 60th Anniversary coverage for a while before leaving home. Actually, quite by accident saw the interview, and "that Betty" making a few comments that had been edited well from the larger piece and that conveyed an honest account of my feelings. Hadn't thought to tape it, but I'm guessing that the NPS has recorded it and will pass along a copy if requested.

When I arrived at the scene of the celebration, I found myself unable to sit in the seats of honor that were obviously set aside for the Rosies. Stood apart, though not consciously rejecting the party -- there was a residual sense of not having been "invited." And surely not to THIS party, but to the original effort many years before. How crazy is that?

There were surely a number of African Americans in that mix of women of the homefront wars, and some most surely bore the names of those little cards I filed in the "auxiliary" union hall day after boring day. They were here being celebrated deservedly, but for some reason I still felt no part of that. Still couldn't accept a role in the proceedings, and this despite the fact that I'd just seen myself on national television as a spokesperson only a hour before! Surely, I had "overcome."

I watched Mary "Peace" Head, an African American who'd been among the shipbuilders of the time, as she was being interviewed live for the nation by MSNBC's James Hattori (same James). She was dressed in overalls topped by a bright bandana and sequin-trimmed accessories. It was she who eventually made the trip to Washington, D.C., two weeks ago to the reception at the White House. She received a bouquet from Mayor Irma Anderson this morning in honor of having represented Richmond at that event. Mary is much-loved in this community and it was right that she be chosen for the honor. Me? I felt nothing. James had his arms around her and she was speaking halting words of pride. What on earth made me hold myself apart from all of this? Why am I still angry?

Maybe I come closer to representing the unfinished agenda -- around the continuing scourge of racism and the need for our nation addressing that. I will settle for no less. I'm still unable to utter the words "..with freedom and justice for all" when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Nor can I say, " ...under God." I continue to expect full justice under the law as promised by our founding documents. I cringe when I hear a repeat of those damning words, "...with all deliberate speed" in reference to the Supreme Court decision that granted Brown vs. the Board of Education, bringing a never-fully realized equity in education. The only time the court's decision was not made an immediate mandate was in that instance; and even the conversations around such things has now been stifled while we're asked, again, to fight and die for the purpose of exporting our imperfect "democracy" abroad.

Two incidents of note from the celebration: A uniformed National Park Service staffer came up and introduced himself with, "'re Betty Reid, aren't you? You may not remember me, but I was a part of the student group who worked with you to change the name of Grove Street in Berkeley many years ago." And the other: "My name is Tucker. I knew you from the Mt. Diablo Unitarian Church years ago when Aron Gilmartin was the pastor. This (NPS ranger) is my daughter who now is working here with the Rosie project." Two Betty Reids from two different lives, and neither was the one standing here "not" celebrating the Good War.

Today I've been watching the incredible (over-used word that fits this time) coverage of the Anniversary of Normandy. Sat spellbound for hours. Interwoven were pieces on President Reagan's death and observances happening all over the country. It all felt terribly far away. I'm learning so much that I'd not known about the war. Must have sleepwalked through much of it, or, was too young and apolitical at the time to know how to feel. Now I'm seeing the drama in some new ways, but also seeing how we've glorified this horrific failure in the settling of conflicts among men (and I do believe it's a male thing). The heroism cannot be denied, and the selflessness of those young people is almost more than one can comprehend. The sight of those 10,000 white marble crosses brings tears, but the waste in human life brings rage to those tears and they burn my cheeks as they fall unresisted.

The drama of the national flags waving from the tall backdrops as planes flew overhead spewing colored smoke as they passed -- while the allied armed forces marched below against the blue seas of the Normandy coast -- bigger than Spielberg! All very stirring, but also very European. This did not represent todays world, nor did it echo today's conflicts. Europeans remain the generic people and all others remain exotic. Few black faces among the veterans. Since the armed forces were not yet integrated, most black soldiers and seaman were in the Quartermasters and Messmen's Corps, supplying arms and rations to those at the front. There were notable exceptions, certainly, 11th Tank Battallion and the heroic Tuskeegee Airmen being a case in point, but their's were segregated units that fought as exceptions to the rule, and as in the nation's prior wars, were often led by white commanding officers. My maternal greatgrandfather, Sgt. George Allen, fought for the Colored Troops of Louisiana in the Civil War. He was a cook behind the lines. On the other hand, a (white) paternal ancestor, a Charbonnet also from Louisiana, was a general on the side of the confederacy in that war to end slavery. Small wonder that my memory bank is scrambled. It could hardly be otherwise. The internal war still rages unabated.

The MiddleEast doesn't exist this day of celebration. Iraq has dropped from the headlines while we glorify the victory of the last war that we believe was victorious. None have been that decisive since. All thought of the world's active resistance to our current occupation of another land is set aside, at least for today.

The idealist that I continue to be demands that our nation be more than our current adventurism would suggest that we've become. Guess I'll never really be a Rosie, if being so means giving up of the right to demand honorable leadership and respect for the rights of other nations to follow their own pathways to freedom as they define it.

Pretty arrogant words, those, but as true as I can utter them. They're merely words. The feelings are something else. My heart aches for all those lost on foreign shores and for my contemporaries who've had to live with the awful memories of the hell that visited those bloody beaches 60 years ago. Such valor can only be imagined. It's beyond my ability to fully grasp the depth of survivor's guilt they've suffered all these years.

But -- this is all made the more awful if there is doubt that the ultimate sacrifice asked of young people was/is based upon false information; for personal or corporate financial gain; is without reference to the value of life in the abstract, or because of religious beliefs that may or may not be universally shared.

Kept wondering as I watched if it was possible for our president to sit in the shadow of those thousands of grave markers under which lie the young people of another era -- between the ages of 18 and 22 -- and not have some notion of the tragedy his war has heaped upon a new generation of kids? Could he not have been moved? Is it cynical to suspect that he may have compartmentalized the entire scene and walked away untouched? Or, will today's experience effect change in how he views the losses in human life that this adventure in Empire building is costing us all?

Salvation thy name is diversity!

So many questions...

So little time...

So close to the edge of existence... .

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