Meet the greatest generation
Gary Lawrence, Guest columnist
In the 33 years I have been in the newspaper industry, there has never been an occasion in which a story or column containing my byline has appeared in any newspaper, anywhere.
My experience in the industry is on the business side and, aside from a few journalism courses in college, I never considered the notion that words or an opinion manufactured by me would be considered worthy enough for someone to actually pay to read.
I have a deep and abiding respect for those who toil daily in the process of creating prose worthy of the distinction of 'professional journalist.' In that context, I would refer to this single submission as two columns; my first and last.
The first weekend in May, my wife and I traveled to Washington, D.C. for a weekend trip to get away and sedately celebrate the arrival of spring. While it was unintentional, it happened to coincide with the first weekend the World War II Veterans Memorial opened to the public. Since both of our fathers served, we decided to go see the monument.
The place where we parked was closer to the Vietnam Memorial, so it was only natural to visit there before making our way to the World War II monument. I patiently waited in line to look in the reference book which marks the location of names found among the 58,000 names carved into the granite walls of that monument until I found the name for which I was searching. I proceeded down the sloping path to the center point and up the corresponding sloping west side path. There on Panel 50W, Line 10 was the name of a fellow high school classmate of mine, Johnnie Sewell.
Johnnie was one of five people in my small hometown of Hartselle who was killed in the Vietnam war. Johnnie played left end on our football team, loved tinkering on an old wrecked Corvette he bought with his own money, and was always the first in line to tackle the tough assignments. I don't think I can remember a single football game or practice where Johnnie wasn't the first guy to get a bloody nose.
Not a particularly large or gifted athlete, Johnnie was so adept at the notion of playing hurt and sacrificing everything for the sake of the team and the love of the game, he received the 1967 team award for "intestinal fortitude" or, as those of us on the team liked to call it, the "guts" award.
I can still recall vividly the smile on his face and the pride in his heart when Coach Cain presented to him, in my mind, the most coveted award you could earn. You see, this particular award was not a popularity contest; it was earned through the toughness and perseverance that defined Johnnie. Traits he showed continuously to the point where everyone on the team knew in their heart he had won the award before we went to the banquet that night.
Johnnie was blue collar in word, deed and action. A foundation upon which others could rely, the ultimate "go to" guy. Johnnie fought in an unpopular war in a time where a lot of us his age wondered why we were even in that country so far away from home.
In fact, thousands took to the street daily to protest our involvement. As such, there is probably not much chance that those who perished in the Vietnam conflict would be included in groundswell support such as is rightfully being afforded to "The Greatest Generation."
Since I never served, I can only attest that Johnnie, while not of that generation, was and is a hero to my generation. He and thousands of those who returned home with scars that won't heal, sacrificed life, limb, mental and physical health for what was, at the time, an ungrateful nation.
It has only been of late the collective consciousness of our country has come to understand the depth of sacrifice necessary to fight on during the darkest of hours. "Intestinal fortitude" seems to be an inadequate but, perhaps, the most accurate description applicable to that generation. Yet, Johnnie would have been the first in line to salute every veteran of every generation.
With Johnnie on my mind, and while drawing natural comparisons to him and the much publicized death of Pat Tillman, the NFL player who was recently killed in Afghanistan, I made my way about five football fields up from the Vietnam monument to the World War II monument.
It is a magnificent tribute to the hearts and minds of many who served bravely when America offered up its favorite sons and daughters in the face of perilous times to an enemy perceived to be vastly superior in strength.
With a strong sense of sacrifice and an abiding faith in God and Country, young men and women of that generation served notice to the world that America's greatest strength in its collective sense of resolve to do that which is right.
While strolling around the grounds, I happened to hear a lady, whose outward appearance would qualify hereto be of my generation, ask a man I assumed to be her father: "Does it make you happy to see this?" As is the case with those of that generation who have demonstrated an admirable trait of speaking little and doing much.
I heard him mutter a barely audible: "Yeah."
But even a casual observation could see through a sudden clarity in his eyes deep into his heart, which was surely exploding with pride, something urging him to stand a little more erect and gain something of a bounce in his step. It was a moment to cherish and reflect and, as I looked at him in the context of the father and grandfather that Johnnie Sewell never got to be, I thought about what a better place we live in because of him, Pat Tillman, and Panel 50W, Line 10, my friend, Johnnie B. Sewell.
This Memorial Day, I will give pause, a special prayer, and a salute to the "band of brothers" who have so gallantly served.
If you haven't said "thank you" to a veteran lately, this might be a good time to consider it. God bless America and all those who served in any capacity, at home and abroad, for the past 228 years.
May you always understand and be appreciated for your place in history in securing and protecting the greatest nation on earth.
Gary Lawrence, a Hartselle native, is the publisher of the Woonsocket Call in Rhode Island.