Now, We Understand

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Author: Tom Varnum '89

Now, we understand.

If we were fortunate to know our great-grandparents, perhaps we listened with a child’s fascination about the “great war.” Terms such as “trench warfare” and “mustard gas” sounded interesting, but we could not grasp the magnitude of what Gertrude Stein called the “lost generation.” Thousands of young men called to action across the ocean to defend countries we barely even knew existed, much less had seen. Maybe it was a long scar, a slight limp or a raspy cough, which brought these memories to the surface. We listened, but we could not comprehend the sacrifice, horror and confusion they must have felt.

Now, we understand.

Our grandparents were part of the “Greatest Generation,” first facing economic hardship we could not imagine: millions out of work, starving and begging in the streets. Families and friends banded together for survival, consolidating resources and leaning on each other for support. We shook our heads at their miserly ways, reminding them that they did not have to count every penny any more. We did not realize that, for them, prudence and caution were the difference between life and death.

Now, we understand.

As if the Depression was not enough, our grandparents were called once again to defend freedom on foreign soil. Places like Pearl Harbor, Normandy, Iwo Jima and Dachau were simply settings of movies for us. Hundreds of thousands of men leapt from boats into bitterly cold water, needing to wade hundreds of yards to the beach through machine gun fire just to keep from drowning. Inch by inch, the marines fought hand to hand to capture tiny Pacific islands. Maybe it was a number etched in skin, a missing limb or a sudden start at the sound of a car backfiring. We listened, but we could not comprehend the fear and sheer will required to carry on in the face of such terror.

Now, we understand.

Our parents lived with the specter of nuclear annihilation: weapons of mass destruction less than 100 miles from our shores for those 13 days in October. “Duck and cover” sounded like a fun game to us. Maybe it’s an abandoned bomb shelter in the back yard, a faded “Fallout Shelter” sign or an old gas mask that makes us pause to think. We had never known a world on the brink of destruction.

Now, we understand.

Vietnam and Watergate shattered our parents’ faith in the power of the government. They watched hundreds of thousands of young men slaughtered half a world away and asked: Why? They watched a president circumvent the democratic process to satisfy his paranoia. They watched their government cover up these crimes and obstruct justice. They lost their faith, hope and confidence. We could not fathom their sense of distrust and disillusion.

Now, we understand.

Now, we understand that the only thing to fear is fear itself. Now, we have experienced our day of infamy. Now, we have our burden to bear: terrorism. It will define our generation like other events and crises have defined previous generations. Will we make the sacrifices needed as those before us have? Will we demonstrate the patience and wisdom of our predecessors? Will we band together as family, friends, neighbors and members of a community to defend and support one another? Will we emerge as a stronger nation?

We will.

Because now, we understand.


Tom Varnum is a high school English teacher and basketball coach in Tyngsboro, Massachusetts.

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