June 16 is Fathers’ Day. The day before Fathers’ Day a few years ago, I received a gift that I treasure. Oddly enough, it was from my father, who died when I was 19.
I was trying to close a drawer of my desk, but the drawer stuck, so I emptied it to see what was blocking it. At the back I found a box I had forgotten. It held old coins, but among the coins was another object. This one had no monetary value, but great significance.
It was my father’s World War I dog tag.
Unlike current tags, it’s round. It carries only his name and serial number, 4898229, and the letters “U.S.A.” It’s aluminum to resist corrosion. If the wearer were killed and had to be buried temporarily in the damp earth of Europe, the body could be identified for later reburial.
As a young man, my father worked nights as a cashier in a cafeteria while attending classes during the day. He hoped to attend medical school someday, a goal he later achieved. But his education was interrupted – some might say continued in another form – by war.
He served as a private in the infantry in France. He had some interesting experiences riding with his buddies in the famous “40/8” boxcars, which were intended to carry 40 men or 8 horses, preferably not in combination.
He finally got near enough the front lines to hear artillery, but fortunately the Armistice was signed before he went into combat. As Dad put it, “When the Kaiser heard I was over there, he gave up.” My only mementos of his service are the dog tag and a photo of him in his high‑collared uniform.
No, that’s wrong. Those are my only personal mementos. But I have many other reminders of what I owe him – and the millions of others, living and dead, who served our country.
First of all, there is freedom. I can express myself any way I wish, either for or against the current administration. Unless I advocate violence, nobody will knock on my door. (They may audit my tax return, but that’s another story.) I can own property or sell it. I can move or stay put. I can take a job or quit.
I can worship daily, or not at all, or change my religion. And so long as I’m a hard worker and a good neighbor, no one will bother me, or even notice. I take for granted what my father left Europe as a teenager to achieve – freedom of conscience.
And my wife can also do these things. No one forces her to cover her face, or prevents her from driving a car, or getting an education, or practicing a profession.
Do we appreciate how unusual these gifts are, both today in the world, and in history? Do we know how lucky we are?
My father’s older brother remained in Europe. Like my father, he too got a serial number. But his number wasn’t stamped on a metal disc with the letters “U.S.A.” His number was tattooed on his arm.
My father wound up a respected physician. There were many mourners at his funeral. His brother wound up in a gas chamber. He had no funeral. But it didn’t matter, because the potential mourners were probably dead, too.
Perhaps there is a lesson here. Perhaps the divergent paths taken by my father and his brother exemplify the divergent paths taken by America and Europe.
● My father struck out on his own, rejecting the past and with faith in the future. His brother stayed behind, looking back toward the past and doubtful of the future.
● My father risked his life to preserve freedom, and he was proud to pass on his legacy to his son. His number remains as testimony to his resolve, stamped in metal.
● His brother lost both his freedom and his life, and even his number vanished in a crematorium. Only his memory remains as evidence of what happens when an all-powerful state loses its moral compass.
Those who advocate an all-powerful government should think about this. Of course, they won’t. They’re convinced they’re right. But so were the people who tattooed the number on my uncle’s arm.
They’re sure that good motives give them the right to reorder society to suit their “progressive” ideas. But so were the people who pushed my uncle into a gas chamber.
They’re positive that Judeo-Christian values are obsolete. But so were the people who shoved my uncle’s corpse into an oven.
And they’re convinced that only the state – not the family, not the church or synagogue, not community groups like the Boy Scouts – should have the power to educate young people and teach them values. But so were the people who scattered my uncle’s ashes.
Is this an exaggeration?
Note the strange bedfellows who agree that all the troubles in the Middle East, and perhaps the world, would end overnight, if only Israel were destroyed. How is it that white-supremacist neo-Nazis consistently support dark-skinned Palestinians and excuse extremist Muslim terrorists?
Note the dissimilar groups that are coming together to favor the Muslim extremists who hate both America and Israel.
Note the diverse people who agree on only one point – that the world would be better off if the 6 million Jews in Israel disappeared. They deny that the Holocaust occurred, while at the same time advocating Holocaust 2, the sequel. Logic and consistency are not their strong points.
Whenever I post an article supporting our war in Afghanistan, and whenever I condemn terrorists who blow to bits innocent people in buses and pizzerias, I get nasty e-mails from three groups:
● Leftists, who call themselves “progressives” and claim to love peace and be friends of all humanity, but who devote much of their energy to hating America and what it stands for.
● Reactionaries, who call themselves “conservatives” and imagine that America can remain isolated from the world, even in the age of long-range missiles, anthrax, nerve gas, nuclear weapons – and airliners crashing into office towers.
● Anti-Semites, who hate Jews so much that they sympathize with groups that kill Israeli Jews, even if Americans and Christian Arabs are killed as well.
What do these three diverse groups have in common? They despise Judeo‑Christian values, though they may give religion lip service. They believe they are the elite, entitled to tell the rest of us poor dumb slobs how to think. They blame America and sympathize with our enemies. They “see the viewpoint” of the 9/11 terrorists.
And they are filled with hate. The anti-Semites at least are open about it. The reactionaries try to conceal their hate by wrapping themselves in the past, while the leftists try to conceal their hate beneath the mantle of humanitarianism.
But they all are motivated by hate for the “others,” rather than by love for their own people.
If I get another hateful e-mail, I can take out my father’s dog tag and feel the cool strength of its metal. I can look at his serial number and be reminded that it is the price of not being branded with another type of number. And I can say “Thanks.”
Thanks, Dad. Thanks, Number 4898229 from Number O5703196. I’m not in your league, but at least I know how precious freedom is, and who paid the price for it.
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