Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Honoring three decent men


When I heard of Frank McCourt's death, I felt within my teacher/writer's soul immense loss. I didn't know him, but of the many literary stars I have seen at the Sun Valley Writers' Conference, he was one of the most accessible. Once I sat with him, and we compared notes about teaching English in big-city schools. While we shared that brief bond of the teacher in common, I also used his stories and anecdotes to brighten up and enlighten my classes.

Last year I sat in on a conference breakout session led by McCourt and Janet Fleming. Its purpose was to share our experiences with books that had changed our lives. I could have savored listening to those session leaders speak for hours about their connections with literature, but they were both generous, allowing many of us to share our experiences. There was laughter and joy in the room, as was always the case with McCourt. The most outstanding impression he left with me (and my students) was his youthful experience of reading Huckleberry Finn, a book that he thought opened up the world of his dank and narrow streets and alleyways to the prospect of the kind of freedom Huck enjoyed steering down the Mississippi on a raft. How sad it is that I will hear no new tales.

The second sad news was the loss of Walter Cronkite, who at least lived to a ripe old age. However, I will miss his voice as well, in a nostalgic way for those of my generation. When television first fully began to be part of our lives and, concurrently, we were able to share things on an immediate level with other lives, he was there.

He was the voice that finally told us of the news we had been dreading since the first information was broadcast that John F. Kennedy had been shot. Wiping an uncharacteristic tear from his eye, he announced that our young president had died. He was there through the shared mourning of the country, the funeral, the nightmarish breakfast experience of seeing Lee Harvey Oswald shot to death as it happened, the hideous death of Martin Luther King, the 1968 Democratic Convention and the resulting political unrest on the streets of Chicago, the Vietnam War and all the other tumultuous events that changed my generation's perspective of the world forever.

We were there at the moment that these events occurred, for the first time in history, and his voice is inextricably connected with that new awareness. Cronkite didn't pander to the celebrity gossip and trivia that, unfortunately, some journalists do. His voice was one of dignity and honor. I have missed it and will still.

Finally, I was reminded at a Community Library presentation a while ago of a long-lost voice of dignity and resolute courage, that of Rod Tatsuno's father, who spent much of World War II in the Topaz internment camp with hundreds of other Japanese-Americans. Rod showed a video made of his father's films of the camp.

I have always been fascinated about the experiences of people in those long barracks. I had an uncle through marriage who represented, in a class-action suit in California, many of the citizens of that era who lost their homes, businesses and possessions as a result of their confinement. The short film was brilliant and evocative. I admired the goodwill on the faces of so many in the camp, the upbeat appearance of Tatsuno in the 1940s, and was especially moved by the appearance of his brother, in uniform, on the way to fight for the country that was keeping his family at Topaz. At the same time, I understood what must have been his inner despair over their plight.

The other amazing revelation was how, during this time and for many years after, Tatsuno traveled the United States and, later, other countries, representing Japanese-Americans. More surprising to me was his contention that his countrymen unfailingly greeted him with warmth and hospitality. This occurred even as he would return to the confinement of the camps and the environment of hatred and fear aimed at his ethnicity that inspired his imprisonment. He, too, was a communicator. He used his voice well.

So, in an era of soundbites and Twitter, perhaps we can take a moment to remember these gentle souls, men of various ages who lived to record and remind us of the courage and beauty available to us should we listen.

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