Frank Buckles, the last remaining veteran of World War I, has died at the age of 110. Buckles was the real thing, a true American hero, a relic of the days when raw, scared kids went to battle and saw their world change into a nightmare of trenches and poison gas. As their world changed, so did the world order. Now that Frank Buckles is dead, that war, those soldiers have been religated to the history books solely and not to personal memory.
My wife's grandfather used to tell us stories about World War I and the time he met Blackjack Pershing. When I was young, there were still a number of Civil War veterans around. My great-grandmother, who died when I was in high school, was born just two years after the Civil War ended. One man whom I was close to when I was young used to talk about being paid fifty cents to ring the church bells in honor of William McKinley when he was assassinated. And these people knew people who were alive during the Revolutionary War.
I note the above not because I'm old --I'm really not very old -- but because there is not six degrees of separation with the past. I knew someone who knew someone who lived in 1776; that's only two degrees. Yet the lives, the lessons, the experiences, and the thoughts of the past fade before our very eyes, and as the past fades, so can our grip on the truth. Politicians, pundits, and demigogues have already spread distorions, half-facts and down-right lies to such an extent that many people now believe them. As horrifying as it is to consider, there are many people today who earnestly believe the Holocaust never happened. Sure, old memories can be wrong, or misinformed, or just plain prejudiced, but the more we know about the past, the closer to the truth we get.
So many people have been forgotten from Frank Buckles' war (although Frank served in two wars: he was also a POW for three years during World War II, where he was instumental in keeping the morale up). Lives that were important -- and should be still important -- are no longer memories. That's a shame. So Frank Buckles, and all your doughboy colleagues, here's a salute to you and all that you have done for us. Some of us will remember and try to pass those memories on.
Here's a song for the rest of us: