Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Past Is Always With Us

The old man sat alone on a bench with a cane propped against one leg. We rode past on bicycles and he said something I didn’t understand. I stopped and pedaled back to tell him I didn’t hear him right.

“He’s afraid of losing you. He keeps looking over his shoulder,” the old man explained as he looked toward my six-year-old grandson, Alex, who’d been pedaling furiously in front of me. The old man’s battered cap visor shaded intelligent eyes surrounded by wrinkles. “Pearl Harbor 1941” was sewn in gold thread above the worn visor.

“You were at Pearl Harbor?” I asked.
Alex at his great-grandfather's funeral last December
 Arlington National Cemetery

“Yes,” he answered.

“You must be in your nineties now.”


Turning to Alex, I asked, “Do you know what happened at Pearl Harbor?”

He shrugged, so I explained that the largest war in history began for the United States when the Japanese attacked the US Navy there back in 1941, ten years before I was born. “This man was there when it happened.”

Suddenly shy, Alex only stared at the old man with wide eyes. The old man’s eyes silently conveyed that he understood how Alex was feeling and seemed grateful for our attention during our short interaction.
Tankers offload at dusk in South Portland Maine

The bicycle trail we’d been riding on was laid out along the Portland Pipeline right-of-way that stretched from where we stood straddling our bikes all the way to Montreal, Canada. There was a huge, ocean-going tanker tied up about three hundred yards from where we were talking as it offloaded crude oil from some other part of the world. Behind us were huge, cylindrical tanks that stored the oil until it could be pumped northwest to refineries in Montreal.
It occurred to me that the pipeline had been completed in1941, just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet it was Canadian involvement in World War II - which pre-dated US involvement - that caused the pipeline to be built. War had broken out in Europe when England and her empire, along with France and its empire declared war on Germany in 1939 following the German invasion of Poland. German submarines had been attacking Canadian shipping in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Canada needed a more secure method of delivering crude oil to Montreal refineries.
We said good-bye to the old man and pedaled the short distance to the waterfront where there was a  full-size model of a “Liberty Ship” bow a few yards from the bow of that big tanker. We turned our bikes into an outdoor display in which there were photographs of what is now “Bug Light Park” as it looked during World War II. The War Department had seized and torn down a residential neighborhood and constructed enormous shipyards on the site to build hundreds of Liberty Ships. These hastily-built, cargo vessels kept the enormous Allied war effort in Europe and North Africa supplied. Tens of thousands of men and women from all over New England worked there. Each woman was a “Rosie the Riveter” in the parlance of the day. They built the ships that would keep their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons equipped with whatever they needed to fight the Nazi war machine.
We looked at the old photos and I explained as much as I could for as long as I had Alex’s attention. Six-year-old boys, and especially Alex, like to keep moving on sunny, September afternoons, so we soon continued our pedaling along the waterfront toward a huge cruise ship tied up to the International terminal across the harbor in Portland. It dwarfed everything around it.
Portland Pipeline Pier at sunrise last month

As we pedaled back toward our South Portland house through what had been sprawling shipyards, I recalled reading the thousands of interviews I assigned my students to do over the decades I taught history. I’d send students out each year to interview someone over seventy years old. Most interviewed grandmothers and great-grandmothers, many of whom were women who had worked at the South Portland shipyard. On that windy Saturday afternoon though, huge kites flew over large expanses of green grass overlooking Casco Bay on what had been an enormous industrial site. I imagined being there seventy years before. Our bikes glided over old railroad tracks, barely poking up through asphalt here and there, remains of what had been.
Moonset over Portland from Bug Light Park last week

History teachers know the past is always with us, especially retired ones like me. Driving back toward our Lovell house in the western Maine mountains, my wife and I pass by other sections of the Portland Pipeline’s 236-mile route to Montreal. Images of men digging it went through my mind along with images of women whose lives were being transformed by their experiences doing what had been exclusively men’s work in the huge shipyard where the pipeline began. Most of them were underground now, like the pipeline, like the old man would be fairly soon, like all of us will be sooner or later.

Today, however, sun is shining. Let’s see what the day brings.


Anonymous said...

AMEN! Beautiful!! Laurie from Bartlett

Texas Transplant said...

I came to the USA on a Liberty Ship in 1946 - one of a contingent of so-called "war brides"...

Andy Dabczynski said...

Of your many fine columns that I've read, this is perhaps the finest. Thank you so much.

Anonymous said...

And there's all those now leveled fields in Europe where pretty poppies grow.

Bradley said...

It is so important to talk to your family members and hear their stories before it is too late, particularly those who served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. We're losing thousands of them every day.

Winston Smith said...

I'm curious if you told the little boy to think for himself and question the corproate historical revsionism that passes for our past (history) today. Like Pearl Harbor. We likely knew the attack was coming and essentially let it happen. Why? Obvious reasons. Gulf of tonkin? Actually didn't happen! Remember the Maine?! that's bs too. World history, let alone our own, is chock full of false flag events that help bring a country to war. That's the world we live in and I hope you pass that truth on.

Have you taught that six year old about operation gladio? You may want to.

Maybe mention to him how the non federal federal reserve is in fact a huge lie that has international bankers running our country. This year marks the 100 anniversary of the takeover of this nation via the federal reserve act. As a history teacher you must know that it's a farce. Maybe the younger generation will have the guts to stand up to it?

Tom McLaughlin said...

Online friend, Harvey Lord, is a retired minister from Maine and he often emails me with feedback. I include his here with his permission:

Dear Tom,
My brother Kurt worked at the shipyard in the summer of '41 or '42 before he entered Bates college as a pre-med student on an accelerated schedule. He got "flashes" on one occassion when he was accidentally facing a welder with a torch. Extreme pain for 2 or 3 days.

Then I rode across the "Pond' in November of '44 as a rifleman with the 69th Infantry div.

We were in England when the "Battle of the Bulge" in Belgium began. The orders came down and a third of the division(including me) was yanked out of units that we had trained with--rushed across the channel and thru a "reppo deppo" to various units as replacements for casualties. I happened to be assigned along with 30 others to B Company of the 526th Armored Infantry Battalion. But that's another story.
The North Atlantic in November is a very stormy place-- 30 to 40 foot waves part of the way. But our Liberty Ship held together. When the ship was pitching, the propellor would race. The whole ship would vibrate. We were in a convoy of 30 or so ships plus escort destroyers. If the U.S.S Santa Maria lost its propellor--T.S. The convoy would keep on going. But they built them strong at S.Portland. Harvey