|Time keeps flowing like a river|
|March 17, 2012 Jerry Purvis|
Jerry Purvis, News Editor
As I look at the grand tapestry that is our American culture, I can see it’s made up of countless individual threads. Each has its own special story to tell. Each has its familiar names, those who left benchmarks on their particular story. And each has its grand moments, its time when the story’s characters stood up and with one voice proclaimed, “We are here.”
And yet I wonder – can pieces of that culture that were once so important to some just die? What happens when the next generation, and the one after that, ceases to care about that historical contribution and the memory just fades away?
Somewhere in the Psalms, time is described as a never-ending stream that bears all its sons away. And like the lilies of the field, once they’re gone, not even the ground acknowledges they were ever there.
That’s what happened to the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association in 2001. For more than 50 years, its members had gathered in Honolulu on Dec. 7 to commemorate the day that will live in infamy. But as one member observed, it’s an organization where they don’t get new members.
As the reality of time, deteriorating health and even death took its toll; members commemorated the 70th anniversary of the attack in 2001, and then disbanded. While it was inevitable, it was still difficult for the survivors as they remembered brothers in battle who had since passed on – and those who perished in the attack. While some 7,000 members showed up for the commemoration in 1981, by 2001 that number had dwindled to around 125.
At that last gathering in 2001, another member told a sad story. A couple years prior, he had been asked to speak to an elementary school class. The teacher introduced him, saying he would speak about Pearl Harbor. And one young girl asked, “Pearl Harbor? Who’s she?”
I guess the words of Gen. Douglas McArthur were right: “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”
The television series M*A*S*H was a highly fictionalized account of the Korean War, featuring some characters who were often annoyingly condescending – like the actors who played them. But one very poignant episode stuck in my mind, as it effectively portrayed a slice of reality.
The episode was “Old Soldiers” and featured an amazing performance by the late Harry Morgan as Col. Sherman Potter. After a day of moping around, the colonel’s staff asked what the problem was. And he related the story of his youth in World War I. He and several buddies made a pact to stash away a bottle of cognac they found. The last man living would drink a toast to the friends of his youth – and that was Col. Potter. To see his shaking hand as he raised a glass is the stuff of acting excellence.
Harry Morgan won an Emmy for that 1980 performance. But because the actors’ unions were on strike that year, the trophy was mailed to him – a rather undignified conclusion to a wonderful piece of acting.
These “last man clubs” are common across the country among those who served together in the military. They’re organized to mark one of the special times of their lives and to commemorate fallen comrades.
I heard about the group with a member in Chadron from a dear man, my undergraduate history professor, Dr. Allen Shepherd. He was also the sponsor for the Campus Historical Forum at Chadron State.
The good doctor is a historian in the classic sense. It’s serious business to him, so the fluffy “pop culture” is of less interest. To use a culinary analogy, he probably sees history as a high end steak, while pop culture is more like aerosol cheese.
That’s the impression I got when I told him one my interests was that brief period of time when old radio shows ruled the airwaves. They were the shows that really started to blossom during the Great Depression. He sort of smiled and said that was nice.
I got to know Dr. Shepherd better after I graduated, when he helped lead a tour of students through the eastern seaboard and into Canada. One day as the criminal justice students went to learn about the Canadian court system, Dr. Shepherd and I were left to fend for ourselves. So we spent the day wandering around Parliament square in the capital of Ottawa. The buskers were fun to watch and the outdoor cafes had great food and good Canadian beer. And if we bought everything we found interesting in the shops, we both would have returned from Canada penniless. It was all great fun.
Unlike the good doctor, maybe I am more inclined to the pop culture end of the history spectrum. But it’s an important part of our history because it tells the stories of the people, their interests, their dreams and their values.
That’s why I found a touch of sadness in reading about another ending. For the past 36 years, Friends of Old-Time Radio held their annual convention in Newark, New Jersey. For one weekend a year, the ghosts of hundreds of legends from radio’s golden age would be recalled and shared by people who remember those times with great fondness.
Last October 22, the group signed off for the last time. Organizer Jay Hickson said when the convention started, they could call on a large number of radio stars who were part of that golden age. But by 2011, the talent pool was down to former child stars from radio, now in their 80s and 90s. Some of the children and grandchildren of the radio greats also appeared at the final years of the convention.
The vendors also used to play a prominent role at the convention. But collecting old radios shows and other memorabilia have never been a young person’s game.
The golden age of radio only lasted about 45 years. The first commercial broadcast was over station KDKA in Pittsburg. It was results of the Harding-Cox election. By 1926, David Sarnoff and General Electric started the first network – the National Broadcasting Company.
Hundreds of wonderful shows from every genre, from comedy and drama to horror and news, brought the airwaves alive. Then in September 1962, CBS aired the last episode of Suspense, the longest-running show on radio. The airwaves haven’t been the same since.
So the question remains in every area of history. What will happen when those who were there are no longer here? Their stories are what we call “primary research” in history. Sure, we can read the books and listen to the old radio shows. It’s something else again to hear about it from the witnesses to history. But as long as people care, our past will continue to be cherished and passed along.
It’s always sad to lose the people who were primary sources of historical information, but their work, their benchmarks, are left for us to study. It could be the golden age of radio, World War II or any other historic niche. Books will continue to be written.
People will continue to discuss. And those who honor the past will keep alive those thrilling days of yesteryear for future generations.