My Dad has never spoken to us much about his experiences growing up in WWII Germany. He has mentioned things like how he got out of attending Hitler Youth Group by using the bureaucracy’s inefficiencies to get his records lost, making toys for Christmas for his siblings while my Grandfather was away at war, and the time my Grandmother was nearly sent to jail for insulting the family of an SS officer. Dad has also talked about the hardscrabble life his family led immediately following the war.
But Dad’s personal experiences of war have only seeped out bit by bit over the years. For one thing, Dad repeatedly told us that he didn’t want his children to have to know of the horrors of war. Also, I have come to realize that the war left Dad with nasty scars that he would rather keep locked away in the deep recesses of memory. He has little desire to rip these wounds open afresh.
The other day I was visiting with Dad along with two of my sons. Something brought Dad to explain that when he was 12 years old, he was assigned to be on his school’s fire team. The team’s assignment was to be ready to extinguish any fire that might erupt in the school, particularly as the result of an air raid. Dad said that sometimes he was required to spend the night at the school pursuant to this duty.
One night when the air raid siren sounded, Dad hopped up, rapidly dressed, and started running from home toward the school. This had become so routine that he wasn’t even fully alert. A few blocks from home, Dad rounded a corner and was brought out of his robotic stupor by a massive blast. He realized that the district was being carpet bombed. It was like he was in some eerie dream. About every third building was systematically being torn apart with massive explosions. Huge chunks of debris were flying everywhere, but somehow Dad was never hit.
Dad stood rooted in place as if he were watching from the outside rather than being in the middle of it all. He watched a sheet of debris rip through and take down a huge century-old tree just a few feet away. Suddenly he realized that this was reality. He was able to uproot his feet and run to a bomb shelter. The lights had been doused. There were many people, but he couldn’t see any of them. He had no idea whether his mother and siblings were safe or not. He sat in a corner trembling in the dark, longing for daybreak as his thoughts were haunted by phantasms of what he had seen and was imagining.
No wonder Dad has been reluctant to talk about his war experiences. No wonder he had recurring nightmares of old war events during the weeks immediately following his stroke.
After telling me and my boys about this horrific event, Dad began talking about happier times. He talked about leaving Germany and immigrating to America. He talked about getting a job and starting a family. He then said, “I came here, started working, and started paying taxes for the bombs that had been dropped on me.”
But there was no bitterness in his voice. Instead, Dad was grateful. He said he was grateful for this country that had given him so much. Dad is not blind to America’s problems. He is not shy about being critical of those problems. But he also knows that this is the greatest nation on earth and he proudly flies the American Flag.
Dad’s ruminations reminded me of an article I read years ago. I recall neither the article’s title nor its author. But the author used the metaphor of a candy store to describe the United States. He said there were those on the outside with their faces pressed up against the glass thinking about what they could do if only they could get inside.
The author then mentioned those that are born inside the candy store but see no opportunity. Some fail to reach out and take advantage and others that do take advantage see the whole place as evil because some in the store are unable or unwilling to reach the higher shelves in the store. Many that get through the door from the outside don’t reach those top shelves either, but they are grateful just to have the opportunities they get.
Injustices do exist. And while we should do what we can to fight injustice, no one should bitterly give up simply because our nation is less than perfect. Was it fair that my Dad had to grow up in a war ravaged country with despotic leaders? Was it fair that he started his life in this country behind the curve, with less command of the language and culture than other workers in his field? Was it fair that he was discriminated against because he had the same accent as those %@#& NAZIs? None of that mattered to Dad. He was grateful for the opportunities available in America.
Yet we live in an era when victimology is taught and celebrated. There are those that turn some pretty good coin selling this tripe and even spewing hateful drivel about people that don’t fit into their identity group — people they call their oppressors. Those that buy this grim ideology blind themselves and others to the opportunities available to them. They see little or nothing good about America, focusing only on her blemishes. As one author put it, this is like looking at a few bugs on a tree and seeing only the bugs but not the tree.
America is a great nation. She is not perfect, but she is filled with opportunity for anyone willing to earnestly seek it. While we should do what we can to remedy our nation’s ‘bugs,’ we should also realize that America gives us ample reason to be grateful and proud — not simple nationalistic pride, but pride in those ideals embodied in her founding to which we diligently aspire.
Unlike most other nations, the USA was founded mainly on principles and ideals rather than on distinguishing atavisms. Those principles and ideals are our common heritage. Working to more fully honor these will go a long way toward combating injustices.
Though all of our dragons are not slain, the USA is the greatest nation on the earth today. I’m grateful for a Dad that has shown me how to value what we have, imperfect though it may be. I pity those whose myopic focus on blemishes causes them to disdain this country rather than being grateful for her abundant goodness. I do not think it wrong to call them spoiled brats. I choose to be among the grateful.