Friday, November 11, 2011

History- a lesson learned from military nurse and wife

A few years ago, I was a student and a the office coordinator at a local museum.  I was pregnant as well.  What began as a conversation with a 70-something year old volunteer docent about the differences in modern maternal medicine ended with a good lesson in paying attention to current events and how history can be deceptive.

Sitting on the porch swing of that maroon bastard Edwardian house with N.  We were discussing how different pregnancy was for me the second time around and comparing it to her pregnancies half a century previous.  For both of us, there were regrets shared and admiration exchanged.  It was a rite of passage- one old woman to one young- about how the shared role of mother bonded us in way men will never understand.  When N had her children, women were sedated (they were believed by male doctors to be too weak emotionally to handle such terrible pain- sarcasm intended).  She admired younger women for taking back control over birth and how fathers were now welcome in the delivery room.  Slowly the conversation rambled over the landscape of power politics and into World War II, which I was studying in my history class and she had lived through.

N was a Canadian army nurse (her father and brothers were all in the military in Canada).  Her husband was an U.S. Navy pilot.  She didn't like to talk about her experiences but she was interested to learn about how we were learning about the War.  We talked for quite a long while before we reached the topic of Japanese Internment Camps.  I have never been impressed with America's momentary embrace of concentration camps; I am not a fan of prejudice, violence or suspending Constitutional rights for political expediency.  To me, this was one of America's lowest moments; it exposes America as a fearful, loud mouthed nation that doesn't really practice or believe what it preaches.  In spite of the horrible treatment Japanese Americans faced by being interned- the 442 Combat Regiment of the Army (comprised of many Japanese soldiers who fought for America while their families were being held in Internment Camps) went on to be one of the most decorated units in all of World War II.

N told me that when all of this happened, her husband had grumbled a bit about internment not being right, but that they never dreamed of speaking up for the Japanese families who were forced into the camps (many of whom lost their homes, jobs and businesses because of this).  She realized, years later, that America had done something that it had condemned Hitler's Germany for.  She told me that looking back, she was rather ashamed of the whole internment fiasco and was glad that World War II was being taught to us without the propaganda that had been used to sell it to her generation.

She believed that we needed to bring mistakes to light, to discuss them and learn from them.  She also made me understand that doubt and dissent are wonderful, powerful tools.  It was a privilege to be able to reach across generations, across view points, and discuss history with someone who lived it.  It was reassuring to see that not everyone was secure with the actions of the past.  N also gave me some great advice: if you see something being done in your name that you don't agree with, speak up.  Don't let complicity be a regret.

Sorry that this rambled all over, but the conversation did too.  I wish I could take you all into my memory of that day.  The sun was shining.  The Cecile Brunner roses blooming and traffic marched past that old house, as though it wasn't really there.  Real connection happened that day.  I hope that before she passed away, N had a chance to tell her grandkids about this.

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