published Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

Cook: Things are not as bad as they seem

They stole the bronze marker off her dad's grave.

Don't ask who. She doesn't know. She won't ever know. She's not even sure she wants to.

Even if somehow, some way, she met the graverobbers face-to-face -- even if they confessed to her their first, middle and last names -- she still wouldn't know how to identify or recognize them. Foreign, such people. Alien.

Because in her world, people who steal bronze markers off the graves of World War II veterans don't exist. No one would do such a thing. No one.

How could they?

"You tell me," she said.

She called last week, frustrated at something I had written. We spoke for 30 minutes. I never got her name, but I heard enough of her story to know I would remember her for a long time. On the last day of the year, we usually look backward at the 12 months behind us. She was asking me to look back 70 years.

"The things my father lived for and worked for don't exist anymore," she said.

She was a little girl in Dade County, Ga., when he shipped off. She still has all of the letters he mailed from Europe. When he came back, he worked every day, paying $2 a month off his ledger. Each April, her mom would begin saving for Christmas presents. Some winters, when the money didn't hold, she'd only get one.

"A doll," she said. "My grandmother sewed its clothes."

Guess how she feels when she reads about folks angry because UPS is late with their Christmas presents?

"We've become so picky instead of being thankful for what we have," she said.

She was married at 18, a mother at 19. Nobody made excuses for her. Nobody gave her a handout. Back then, it was Annette Funicello. Today, it's Miley Cyrus. Then, it was Dwight Eisenhower and Walter Cronkite. Today, the 113th Congress and MTV and a moral bankruptcy.

"It's not wrong to do anything," she said.

To her, a hole in the earth seems to have formed where there was supposed to be a bridge. These things that were supposed to be passed down from her generation to others have gotten lost.

"Doesn't it just get you sometimes? This gimme-gimme culture?" she said.

Yes ma'am, it does. Do I wish everyone were like your father, who served his country and then came back home to work, raise a family and live a life straight as an eagle's wing? Do I wish that bronze gravesite memorials would remain polished and in place forever? Do I wish that humility and honesty had the first and last word?

Without question.

"How's the next generation growing up?" she said.

We hung up soon after she asked this. Days later, I realized I had been speaking not just to this one woman, but to many, as if a whole generation had been on the telephone with her. Worried, angry, trying to make sense of a crazy world and even crazier times, they are asking the most important question: What is to come of this country and its younger generations?

I never got a chance to answer this last question. I'd like to now.

First, thank you.

Thank you for the example you've given us, the way you've lived, the way your mother and father held up the whole world in their calloused, hungry hands. Narrow is the road that leads to a good life, and I doubt their footsteps ever left it.

And second: You can rest. The coming generations will make you very proud.

Yes, there is a weight around this world and so many people are drowning from it. Yes, we have issues. We don't just have issues, we have subscriptions.

But there will be 10 dozen people all 30 or younger who would read this and immediately email with two questions: Where is her father buried and how can I pay for him to have a new grave marker?

Our headlines do not tell the whole story; were we to report on all the good news and ideas emerging out of young people today, you'd need a new driveway to hold all the papers we'd deliver.

Compassion, intelligence, courage? Kids these days are oozing with them. They hold in their hands technological powers that are marvelous, and will advance this world past sickness, ignorance and suffering in ways we cannot even imagine. A politics of cooperation will replace a politics of division. Education will be standard for kids all around the world. Your question -- how can I work hard? -- is being replaced by theirs: How can my work make the world better?

Your father defeated Nazism. They will defeat things just as large.

Sure, we've got wolves on Wall Street and too many people sleeping in the streets. But as your father would surely say, we live in a fallen world.

Please know your generation is not the only one hoping to try and pick it up.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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