My dad was stationed in Texas. He didn’t talk a great deal about his experiences, but I was able to discern this much: 1) Texas in 1944 was hot. The only air conditioner on the base was in the officer’s club. My dad was not an officer. 2) Soldiers were required to carry a gas mask in a backpack with them at all times. My dad felt strongly that the Axis powers were not going to attack Texas. So he did not carry his gas mask in his backpack with him at all times. Instead, he filled his backpack with poetry books. While the other young men did what other young men do, my dad read poetry. He learned Robert Herrick’s Whenas in Silks My Julia Goes; William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 (When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes); and Ozymandias by Percy Shelley among a great many others. I imagine the air conditioned officer’s club would have been his first choice, but poetry books seemed to work out well enough.
My dad may subsequently have forgotten how to fire machine guns out of the ball turret underneath a B-17, but he never lost a line of those poems. When he met the woman who was to become my mom, he recited some verses. They dated for almost three full weeks before determining they should be married. I’m not saying that poetry had anything to do with their decision, but that union did last 63 years. On my dad’s 85th birthday, he and the dozen other members of his poetry group got up to read a sonnet. My dad accepted a paper on which the 14 lines were printed and glanced at the words. Then he handed back the paper. Without disdain he said, “I don’t need this.” He recited flawlessly.
To honor my father’s memory, I have been learning a few poems and some Shakespeare verses. Poetry doesn’t seem to be a whole lot more popular in 2018 than it was during the Second World War. A brief census suggests that nobody wants to hear the "St. Crispin’s Day Speech" from King Henry V or even “Casey at the Bat.” I have therefore only recited these lines to my running buddies and then only after we have put in six or eight sweaty miles. I like to believe that the willingness of my fellow plodders to listen to “The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville Nine that day” is based on interest. The reality might be that they are just too exhausted to complain. They are certainly in no condition to run away. Of course I think of my dad when I’m reciting.
What will your kids be thinking of down the metaphorical road? What are we doing in the lives of our children to “make memories”? What will our kids remember of us when, in the fullness of time, their generation takes precedence over ours? Dashiell Hammett and Humphery Bogart taught us what dreams are made of, but of what will the memories be made? What stories will our kids tell about us? How will we be recollected?
Admittedly, it's hard to plan for half a century from now. Dinner needs to get on the table today, toys need to be picked up now, and carpool has to be arranged. Just the same, failing to plan is planning to fail. Let’s consider which of the following questions is likely to have our kids honoring us when our season has ended and we have been traded to the angels.
“Remember that day we went to five different stores in the mall, but still couldn’t find anything in my size?” “Remember the time you were on social media for hours on end and I was playing violent video games?“ “Remember that fourth grade report card when I got a B in math and you had a come-apart and alternatively screamed and pouted?” “Remember the day I had surgery and you hired someone to stay with me?” “Remember when I brought home that girl you didn’t like and you said I had to choose between her and you?” “Remember that misunderstanding when we didn’t speak for years?”
Aren’t the following questions preferable? Wouldn’t you rather imagine your kids sitting around the fire—I’m assuming fires will still exist in the future—saying stuff like…
“Remember when I was eight and you read us Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban until two o’clock in the morning?” “Remember the hike when we got totally turned around and we barely made it back before dark?” “Remember that day you took us out of school early just so we could throw a ball in the park?” "Remember the night we woke up at three in the morning and drove out to the Everglades to look for shooting stars?" “Remember the day I had surgery and you stayed with me all night and recited poetry?”
I also like the idea of keeping good ideas alive. There’s an idea about how to raise healthy kids in this toxic culture: be there for them in every meaningful way. There’s also an idea that poetry and Shakespeare and hiking and shooting stars are still important. Maybe you’ll join me thereby in learning these few lines:
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
Join me, dear readers, in pausing to consider how to be the best parents we can. I’m pretty sure poetry and hiking rather than trips to the mall and violent video games is part of the answer. I know my dad—Ball Turret Gunner Altshuler, 1924—2018, would agree.
Click Here for the text of the St. Crispin's Day speech from King Henry V. Scroll down to the bottom of the link to watch Kenneth Branaugh recite. Or join our running group for a few miles one early morning. I'm no Kenneth Branaugh but it would be my great pleasure to do the best I can. A few miles in, we can even swap stories about what our dads did in the Second World War.