Into the attic of our memories

When I was a young boy growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., my parents would go to church every Sunday. And afterward, they liked to go to a restaurant – The Park Lane in Delaware Park, where their wedding reception was held. It was quite fancy, but, like many things in Buffalo, it, too, fell on hard times. It was a place, though, where they liked to take the whole family.

One day, while there, my parents stopped whatever conversation we were having, got our attention and pointed out the table where they were sitting on the day when the news came that Pearl Harbor was attacked: Dec. 7, 1941. The news, they said, seared everybody in the room, when somebody exclaimed, “we have just been attacked!”

This story they were sharing with their children, was my parents’ way of burning into us kids’ minds just how serious it was. It was my parents’ way of telling us the attack on Pearl Harbor, approximately 13 years earlier than that Sunday dinner, was something I should never forget.

I was too young, only one-year-old when the attack occurred, so, no, I could not remember it. But I never forgot it, thanks to my parents sharing that story. And each time I went back into The Park Lane restaurant afterward, I always looked over to that table where they learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

That was then, though – a time when our country, within a 30-year span, lived through World War II, a presidential assassination, a civil rights leader being gunned down, a presidential hopeful’s murder and the Vietnam War.

This is now – terrorists attacking our country on Sept. 11, 2001, school shootings at small elementary schools in small communities and large universities and space shuttles exploding. And now, unfortunately, is a time in which, with so many so-called “newer” national tragedies, it might seem as though Dec. 7, 1941, is one tragedy slowly being forgotten.

Oh, not fully. I bet most Americans have heard of Pearl Harbor and know it was serious. They know something terrible happened that day 72 years ago. But to ask a young person today if they know what the precise date of the attack was? So many seemingly do not know. And, yet, this is a date every American should know and remember, no matter their age.

I have taught hundreds of college students each year, for more than 30 years. Some of them grew up, as I did, in homes where the day’s events were talked about, and where such topics as Pearl Harbor were discussed. Maybe not observed, per se, but at least talked about and regarded as important. I see and hear today so many students do not talk about things like that at home. They do not get together and talk about the good and bad of the day. And yet, ironically, had it not been for Pearl Harbor, we do not know how World War II would have worked out, and, thus, do not know how we would be as a society if the war’s outcome was different.

And because of young people not talking with their parents about topics such as Pearl Harbor and its history and its meaning, there are many misconceptions I see within students today. Misconceptions such as most people thinking we went to war with Hitler and Nazi Germany that day in 1941, as well. (No, we went to war against Japan; Hitler declared war on us four days later.) Misconceptions such as people believing we were a world superpower the time of the attack. And yet we were not. (We were an industrial and economic power, but we did not yet have much military clout.) Now, of course, we emerge from the war as the world’s superpower but, looking back on it now, many of us are beginning to think we were the world’s only superpower. And that, too, is not true.

I do not want to chastise parents, but I do not think they take time to do things like that anymore, i.e. talk with kids and have discussions at the dinner table. Dinner, to me, is not just about food, but it is about being and getting together and talking about things. Things that mean, and have meant, something to us. Things such as the remembrance of Pearl Harbor, and those who died in that tragic attack.

I always think – and I tell this to my students – that, with parents, when a quality TV documentary is coming on about Pearl Harbor or other historical events, that that’s good family time to sit down together. It’s a good time to sit down and talk about it at supper time. It’s a good time to remember, and to make sure the next generation remembers. In our family, that’s where we discussed things – what we learned in school, and what we needed to know.

Unfortunately, this, I suppose, is what happens as time goes on. People forget. Or just don’t remember quite as well. I see this happening with students, in that, even 9/11 is beginning to flutter a little bit. For a while there, students all remembered every living detail of it. But students today were tiny tots back then. Many have heard about it, and certainly know some things about it, but many just remember their parents were very upset.

It is important to understand who we are and what we became as a nation, throughout our nation’s history, and the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, is one of the key moments in defining who Americans are as a people. It is a moment that most certainly set in motion the process of becoming the superpower we have become. It is a moment we as a nation should want to remember the importance of. It is a part of the lore of our country. It is how we became the nation we are. It was one of the tragic stepping-stones along the way, yes, but it was an important stepping-stone, nonetheless. It is important we understand, as a nation, it wasn’t all victories for us. That sometimes, like 9/11, a great sense of pride in our nation comes out of a terrible tragedy. That, too, was, and is, Pearl Harbor.

There will most likely be a point in time where the attack on Pearl Harbor, like so many other older tragedies, will go into the attic of our memories. But I do not believe it is time to go there just yet.

Not by any means.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Richard Saunders is a professor of history at Clemson University, S.C.