Thursday, November 26, 2009

Speak to Me

Talking this spring with Sebastian Rilling, a German teenager who was learning English, French, and Italian in addition to his native tongue in school (see July 16 post) brought to mind how different educational systems can be. We don’t train American high school students that broadly or intensely in languages.

Until fairly recently, it didn’t matter much. The British forgave us for butchering their language; people in other lands who wanted to do business internationally learned English. We rarely had to be able to speak anything but our own language to get by in most parts of the world.

But now there is new emphasis on linguistics. We woke up to a serious problem when military commanders ordered our soldiers to “win the hearts and minds” of legions of mostly illiterate Arabs without being able to talk to them. If not impossible, that mission is extremely difficult.

Some critics of our educational system claim we never included foreign languages. That is not true. My high school in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, for many years offered two years of training . . . in Latin. My parents demanded that I sign up to learn the ancient language, as did others who thought their little darlings might be headed toward higher education. The theory was that Latin was the root of many languages, and understanding it would help us understand all sorts of things.

My high school freshman year, 1949, was a milestone in language education at Tomahawk High School. Spanish classes were offered for the first time. The reasons for the new courses were different than those that prompted all the years of Latin offerings. Our school board was told that millions of people near our borders spoke Spanish, and it would be useful to be able to talk to Latinos. That line of thinking turned out to be correct. Millions of those millions now live in the USA. I didn’t sign up for Spanish lessons in 1949, but now I wish I had.

The Latin taught by Mrs. Harriet Borkenhagen, a lovely lady who was strict in the classroom, did help me now and then to understand the meaning of various words used by Americans and others. Nowadays, it often helps me solve the daily crossword. Latin training never helped me talk to anyone. Not many years after 1949 only a few old priests still spoke Latin.

A pseudo-Latin phrase did provide daily encouragement for years when I started off to face the rigors of the workplace. A sign on our garage wall said:

Illegitimi non Carborundum

The saying is not proper Latin, and the translation is pretty loose, but the thought was helpful:

“Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down”

Monday, November 16, 2009

Upon Further Review

The previous post dealing with “second-class veterans” generated a flurry of reaction, through e-mails and personal observations in addition to the direct comments. One reader questioned the assertion that the American Legion would exclude a two-year vet who was honorably discharged. She said this is so preposterous that I must be wrong.

I rechecked at I was right. Had I served from June 25, 1950 through January 31, 1955 (Korea) I could join. Ditto for February 28, 1961 through May 7, 1975 (Vietnam). But my service from May 20, 1958 through May 19, 1960 doesn’t count. I would qualify, however, had I served for about five weeks starting December 20, 1989, when we attacked a mighty adversary . . . Panama!

American Legion membership runs in my family. Two of my uncles served overseas in World War I and became legionnaires. Another uncle was awarded a Croix de Guere medal by the French government for bravery in battle. He would have had no trouble joining the American Legion, but I don't know that he did.

My father was drafted in the last days of WWI, and was discharged while still in training in North Carolina. He was in the U.S. Army barely long enough to have his picture taken in uniform. That minimal and hardly dangerous service qualified Dad for American Legion membership. He joined and participated in activities of the local post for nearly 50 years.

We had other connections. I played American Legion baseball for two years, and one of my proudest possessions is a trophy given to me by the post in my hometown as the "Outstanding Senior--1953" in my high school class.

Strangely, although the Legion obviously doesn’t want me as a brother vet, I could participate in some of the organization’s activities. I qualify to sign on as one of the “Sons of the American Legion” because of Dad’s brief service back in 1918.

I’ll be damned if I’ll walk through that loophole!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lunch with the Heroes

I was a peacetime soldier drafted into the U.S. Army in 1958.

The Ike we liked so much as president had concluded a truce in 1953 to end the Korean War, an undeclared war officially called a “conflict” at the time. Marines were laying their lives on the line in Lebanon, and troop trains pulled into sidings where I was in basic training, but the crisis blew over and officially we were never at war in the Middle East.

A few months later, we had several thousand “advisors” in Southeast Asia, and were training hundreds of Vietnamese artillery and missile men at Fort Sill where I was stationed, but officially we weren’t at war in Vietnam. Only the Cold War was in full flower when Uncle Sam plucked two years out of my young life.

When I and several million others completed our active duty assignments we became second-class veterans. Our country gave us most of the benefits first provided in the G.I. Bill after World War II, but in some cases our benefits were reduced. For example, men and women who served during official wartime years got ten point preferences for federal employment. We got five points.

Private groups also treated us with less than full respect. Many of the first-class veterans signed up in the American Legion to enjoy social life with buddies and push veteran’s causes. To this day, we second-class vets are not eligible to join the organization.

My feelings about having served in the “doughnut hole” of recent American military history were ambivalent. After all, chances of an enemy shooting at me were pretty low. However, they were pretty low for most of those who served in the Navy and Air Force in many wartime situations, and nearly nonexistent for the wiser young men in the late 1950s who signed up in the National Guard or reserve units, avoiding all but brief active duty stints.

It also occurred to me that those of us dumb enough to be drafted in peacetime probably shouldn’t rank right up there with wartime volunteers when applying for veteran’s benefits. I opted out of the Air Force ROTC program after two years. That wasn’t smart. Mostly, however, I didn’t worry about my missed opportunities or veteran status.

Although some of our institutions have not changed their rules, it seems that many Americans in recent years have decided all veterans are first-class. For a long time at patriotic moments during public events it was customary to give a round of applause for vets who served during our various wars. This summer, Sandy and I attended two concerts where the emcees made it clear that ALL veterans should rise and be recognized. It was a thrill to stand with heroes, even though I hardly qualify as one of those.

Yesterday we had lunch with a lot of heroes. On Veterans Day, Applebee’s restaurant gave a free meal to everyone who could prove military service, and not a whole lot of formal proof was required. The place was packed. And it was packed with pride. When a waiter asked one patron dining alone if he was a vet, the man pulled out a map to show where he served on an island in the Pacific. A much older man, who apparently didn’t expect to be asked, had brought nothing to prove he served in the World War II era. The waiter said, “Oh, never mind. It’s OK; your meal is on us.”

Thanks, Applebee’s, for honoring our heroes in a tangible way, and for promoting me to veteran first class, if only for a day.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

A Little Rebellion Now and Then

In my youth, adults exercised firm control over kids. Well, they did until we reached high school age. Teenagers rebelled against authority figures, openly or covertly, then as now.

In my small high school, rebellion could fall into the prank category. Enterprising chemistry students concocted a sulfur cocktail and found a way to get it into the ventilation system. The rotten egg odor cause the building to be evacuated, and it stayed shut down for most of a day. One young man showed up with a really ugly "Mohawk" haircut. He was told to go home and clean up his act. He reappeared the next day with a somewhat neater Mohawk, dyed green.

Sometimes things got violent. When I was a freshman, a particularly belligerent sophomore clashed with teachers several times. Just before the youth was expelled, a teacher who doubled as an assistant football coach threw the kid down the long flight of stairs at the school's main entrance.

At Sandy's high school in West Bend, Wisconsin, a much bigger place, she participated in a novel challenge to authority. Sandy was on the debating team. A fellow debater showed up at a football game slightly inebriated. The principal expelled him.

Sandy and the other debaters thought the penalty was too harsh for the crime. In fact, since the boy was 18, he was a legal beer drinker and the students didn't think any penalty should have been imposed. The debate team members removed the knobs from every drinking fountain in the high school. They let it be known that access to "bubbler" water would be restored when their friend was reinstated.

The principal retaliated by announcing he was going to find out exactly who stole the fountain hardware, and he then would expel anyone involved. The debaters decided they were not in a power position. Overnight, they put the bubbler knobs back on. Ultimately, though, their viewpoint prevailed. A few days later the principal reinstated the wayward debater.