Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day 2007: Westporters Rally Round the Flag

Drop Cap Letter: The text of my remarks at today’s 2007 Memorial Day parade:

Honored Guests.

Thank you to all those who participated in today’s wonderful parade and a special thank you once again to Bill Vornkahl, known as “Mr. Parade” in Westport. Bill has been doing this now for close to four decades and we are eternally grateful.

I was particularly impressed with the Y’s Men’s float designed by Leonard Everett Fisher who was among those who planned the U.S. invasion of Iwo Jima. And I thought it very fitting that it included a tribute to the late Clark Ford, a longtime resident who oversaw the float’s prize-winning design for the last five years.

I had a chance to visit Iwo Jima on a training exercise with the Marines while based in Japan for CBS News a couple of decades ago, and it was a very haunting experience.

This is my second Memorial Day address as your first selectman but, as I noted last year, I first marched in a Westport Memorial Day parade in the early 1950s. Yes, I’ve missed a few here and there over the years, but the nostalgia remains for the small town that Westport once was. A Westport where everyone practically knew everyone else. It was a quieter, gentler time. It was a Westport where the controversy of the day was the army’s plans to build a Nike missile site where Bedford Middle School is now located.

You old-timers will remember of course that this was the subject of Westporter Max Shulman’s hilarious novel, “Rally Round the Flag , Boys,” later made into a movie of the same name starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward—a movie that brought them to Westport. And they’ve been here ever since, thank goodness.

But you know, in Westport, and many other places across our great nation, it seems we don’t rally round the flag very much anymore. Maybe you saw the story in yesterday’s newspaper about the city manager in Long Beach, Long Island. He sent a memo around last week which addressed the war in Iraq, the American flag, Paris Hilton, Anna Nicole Smith and Brittany Spears in three very short paragraphs.

Edwin L. Eaton was one small voice trying to remind the nation what matters and what doesn’t. He wrote, “While our society and media outlets appear to be consumed by the activities of the ‘glitterati,’ we tend to forget that each day Americans are anonymously dying in Iraq.”

He went on: “I think only fair that they be remembered and honored” and then he ordered all American flags in Long Beach flown at half-staff—indefinitely.”

Westport has had its own way of reminding ourselves that young Americans…and those not so young…have been dying in Iraq. Every Saturday morning rain or shine a group of Westporters has stood on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge reminding all who pass by that Americans are dying in Iraq.

Our grand marshal, Ted Diamond, and his wife, Carol, can usually be found among those on the bridge. No one would dare question the patriotism of Ted Diamond…or Larry Aasen…or other of any of our other war veterans on the bridge. And no one would accuse any of them of not rallying around the flag.

But we all could do more to rally around the flag and recall the sacrifices of those who have served and who continue to serve. Sometimes you don’t realize how many Westporters have served their nation in extraordinary ways.

The late Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halbertstam, who was honored posthumously yesterday at the Westport Public Library’s Booked for the Evening fund-raiser, found one such Westporter.

His name was Gene J. Takahashi. A month before Halberstam’s untimely death in a California car crash, Halberstam wrote about Gene Takahashi in a Forbes magazine column.

“Some two years ago I went out to Westport, Conn., to interview Gene Takahashi for a book I was writing about the Korean War,” Halbertstam wrote.

“There were, it soon struck me, two Gene Takahashis, the first the former IBM executive, quiet and exceptionally modest, the model citizen of a prosperous Connecticut suburb; and then another Gene Takahashi, someone whom almost none of his neighbors knew anything about.”

Halberstam went on to detail Takahashi’s difficult life, including the time he and his family spent in World War II internment camps, the indignities he endured in the U.S. Army as an American of Japanese descent, and his Korean War battlefield exploits that won him a purple heart and a bronze star for valor and which, Halberstam said, made Gene Takahashi “a genuine war hero.”

“I had been intrigued by Takahashi’s story because it is so American,” Halberstam wrote, “at once good American and bad American.”

A few days before his death, Halberstam was called by a reporter for Inklings, the Staples High School newspaper. Aaron Kiersh, the Inklings reporter, asked Halberstam about Westporter Gene Takahashi.

“I’m doing this in honor of Gene,” Halberstam said, referring to the book on the Korean War.

“He’s just an uncommon man. He’s very graceful, a modest man. He had a platoon, oddly enough, an all-black platoon. He’s a wonderful man who should be celebrated.”

Ironically, the same day that Halberstam was killed, the Inklings reporter spoke to Gene Takahashi about Halberstam. Neither knew at the time Halberstam was dead. Takahashi said he was looking forward to Halberstam returning to Westport for yesterday’s event.

“My experiences caught Halberstam’s attention,” Takahashi told Inlings. “He came to Westport and we spent the day together talking about my experiences.
He’s a meticulous writer, very unique.”

The Inklings reporter noted that Gene Takahashi was battling lung cancer. Well, 13 days ago, Gene Takahashi died. A memorial service was held this weekend…Memorial Day weekend….at the Saugatuck Congregational Church…a day before he and Halberstam were to be reunited at the Westport Library.

Now both are gone…but you can be sure, not forgotten, not by this generation or by the many who will follow.

The same Inklings issue that carried the Halberstam interview also had a story about a soldier many Staples students would have a lot easier time identifying with—Staples assistant principal Rich Franzis.

It was announced last January that the 51-year-old Franzis, a lieutenant colonel in the army reserve and father of three, will be on active duty for 18 months. Franzis, adviser to the sophomore class, told Inklings that he visited Iraq in April for two weeks to meet with the counterpart he will be replacing this summer.

He mentioned that the turret gunner in his Humvee is the mother of a 3-year-old who volunteered to go back to Iraq for a second time. Franazis closed his e-mail to Inklings this way:

“I’d like to wish the class of 2007 my very best wishes for a successful future. Hopefully I’ll be back to see my class, the class of 2009 graduate. Best regards and thanks for thinking of me. – Rich Franzis.”

Well, Rich Franzis, we are thinking of you today, of you and your fellow soldiers now serving our country. We’re thinking of Gene Takahashi. We’re thinking of Ted Diamond and the millions of others who have served so valiantly.

And yes, Westport can still rally round the flag for all those to whom we are so grateful for our freedom and for making our country still the greatest nation in the world.

Thank you very much.