It’s difficult for me to believe, but my father is already older than my grandfather was when I was born. As a child, your parents seem frozen in time, unchanging, and their continued existence is taken for granted. But this January when my father drove me back to school at the beginning of the semester as he always does, something was different. It might be connected to the fact that the close of my college career is within sight, and I am pondering the acceptance of the responsibilities of my final passage into adulthood. Whatever it was, something changed in me as I glanced at my father carrying my suitcases up the stairs that January morning. He’s still relatively young and in good health, but for the first moment in my life, the reality of his eventual mortality touched me, and it prompted a reflection on the impact this man has had on my young life.
Growing up, I was homeschooled, and my mother was the more active participant in my education. Math lessons on the couch and her reading aloud the Chronicles of Narnia are still vivid memories, but my father’s role in my "formal" education had always seemed minimal to me. He worked long hours, dedicated to supporting our family while Mom stayed at home. He wasn’t an "outgoing" dad. He didn’t ask me about "peer pressure" or tell me why drugs were bad things. But the conversations I had with my father, even from a very young age were his contribution, and they figured inestimably into making me who I am now.
Our talks were always very intellectual. We rarely discussed what I had done the afternoon before he came home from work. Instead, we talked about ideas, and history and stories—true stories. Dad was usually reserved, but I remember very clearly the first time I ever saw my father overwhelmed by emotion. I was eight or nine, and he was telling my brother and me about a Cuban family that had died on a homemade boat trying to get to America. I remember his voice cracking as he talked about our country, and freedom, and why people were willing to die just for the chance to live here.
What I remember most, though, is his pride in telling me about my grandfather and my uncles and their service to our country. He showed me the pictures of his father who joined the Army Air Corp. following Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Whenever pictures of Marines taking Iwo Jima were shown on television, he would remind me that my Uncle Ken fought there. But his mother’s brothers were his favorite to talk about—Albert who participated in the liberation of the American POW camps in the Philippines and Cal who was wounded after his parachute jump into Normandy.
I don’t think I realized the significance of what my father did for me until I got to college and began to read the works of great American statesmen. In his Lyceum Address of 1838, Lincoln spoke of the crumbling "pillars of the temple of liberty." These pillars had been the generation of Revolutionary War soldiers. These men, he said, were a "living history…to be found in every family—a history bearing the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of the wounds received, in the midst of the very scenes related." When Lincoln gave his speech, the "pillars," the "forest of the giant oaks" were falling to the "silent artillery of time," and they were taking their history with them.
In my own family, only one uncle remains. I see him now only at a few family functions, and he is feeble. His war wounds were barely noticeable when my father first pointed them out to me, but now, the painful limp caused by his damaged knee is obvious. Lincoln spoke of the passion kept alive by the Revolutionary Generation and how it had fortified the respect the American people had for their "political institutions." I doubt that Dad ever read the Lyceum Address, but he still understood what Lincoln was talking about. As an impressionable child, I felt the weight of these lessons, and they had the effect of developing in me a sense of my own civic responsibility. I am older now, and my "higher education" with its "cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason" has begun to replace that passion. That substitution is probably good since reason is more reliable, but I am convinced that I would not be pursuing the path I am on if it had not been for those early descriptions.
Tom Brokaw and others have begun to realize the importance that the last generation of American patriots had to our nation’s survival. They lament their passing and the history that is lost with each old soldier’s death. But more than any book or teacher, I must thank my father for the lessons he imparted to me as a child. I must thank him for taking me to visit that "old oak forest" before the rude storms of time could sink the last of their mutilated limbs. And now more than ever, I wonder what other lessons this man might still have to teach me.
Alyssa Guthrie is a junior from Greenwood, Indiana, majoring in Political Science and English.