If we pay attention, history has a way of teaching us about our own destiny and fate. I have always loved a good history class. I’ve been fortunate throughout my life to have had history teachers who could communicate stories, some with calm, clear voices and some with more excitement that you could imagine, hands flailing around and even one who jumped off his desk, mid-lecture (George Cotkin, unforgettable, Cal Poly Fall 1992). Either way, these voices showed me the angles of history that could incite critical thought and great conversation...a testament to the power of a great teacher. In part, because these teachers sparked my interest in history, I became an observer of the people in my life that could tell me the stories that had come before me. Stories of strength and perseverance and grand plans that turned into reality. I have always had the sense that what came before me was there to teach me about my own life story and, I have been fortunate to have people put in my path to be proud of and to prove my theory true.
Today I woke up thinking about D Day. I don’t know how many people my age did that, maybe a lot, maybe not so many. I would be willing to bet though that there are far fewer in the generations younger than me, mainly because the storytellers of the Greatest Generation have not been a part of the younger generation's day to day experience and, as humans, we learn so much more through story and experience than hard text.
When emotion is weaved through historical data, it embeds in our hearts and minds in a much more profound and impactful way. I grew up with a grandmother who told stories of being stationed at Elveden Hall (think Eyes Wide Shut and, more recently, All The Money In The World, they were filmed there) in England in World War II. She was a secretary to General Partridge and one of the first members of the WAAC, the Women’s Army Auxilary Corp. Her stories were my first taste of ground breaking female strength and conviction, and I always admired the way she radiated those qualities in the most humble, grace filled way. She also used the tenacity it took to get her to that point of her life, defying odds and breaking barriers, to carry her through both blessed and, more importantly, difficult life circumstances after the war, always using that strength to be a constant light to other people who crossed her path.
In 2012, I had the opportunity to visit Normandy and see the beaches and rocky cliffs. It was the trip of a lifetime. Even better, I shared this trip with my dear friends, one of whom had been there before with his father Jack, who had shared his story on that trip, as they traced his journey through the European battlefront to celebrate his 90th birthday. Jack landed at Omaha Beach on June 7, 1944. Note the irony of that date. As fate would have it, his ship was delayed by bad weather after leaving England, and when it arrived in the waters beyond Omaha beach, the fighting had moved inland. Hours and even minutes can make such a difference in the outcomes of our lives. A delay of 24 hours could have been the difference that afforded him a life well lived. A story that includes a wife, six kids, and more grandkids and great grandkids than I can count. Jack turned 100 on September 6, 2017 and is still going to work today. Born just two days after my grandmother, and as fate would have it again, they became friends much later in life, after the war, going to party's, traveling together, and sharing a life that looked much different than the days of World War II. On top of that, I am fortunate to call Jack's son and daughter in law among my closest friends...like attracts like.
The strength of the Greatest Generation will always be something I admire and use to motivate me in our modern world, in the face of fading human contact and the instant gratification that we face as a society every day. I am so grateful to have had these stories passed on to me to wake up with every day. When I stop for a minute, and let the stories I have been told sink in, the universal truths are there for the taking. Perseverance in the face of adversity, belief that both fate, and our own discipline, choices, and actions, have a hand in telling our story, and above all, that love, family and friendship will carry a story through many generations, if we care enough and are brave enough to tell it. May we all have the courage to create stories worthy of telling to those who come after us.