NewsWhistle is pleased to feature Gary Jenneke’s “This Day In History” column.
You can read the original at Gary’s THIS DAY IN HISTORY blog — or scroll down to enjoy Gary’s unique look at life’s comings and goings.
THIS DAY IN HISTORY… DECEMBER 5
2018 – E Pluribus Unum
Out of many, one. This Latin phrase appears on the Great Seal of the United States. The original concept being that out of thirteen separate colonies came one nation.
I spent last Thanksgiving weekend in Washington, D.C. with my sister, Jan, and my brother-in-law, Dave. We came as tourists and we embraced that role. Our first stop was the Capitol building and the start of the tour was a twenty-minute introductory film entitled “E Pluribus Unum.” It was a nicely done film that was a tribute to the ideals of our nation’s beginning. The greatness of America lies in the noble concept of what we should try to be. That we fall short of that goal is sad and frustrating, yet the groundwork is there for us to continue the effort. What also impressed me was the respectful attention of the audience. After the film was over we filed out in a contemplative silence, as if pondering what we should and could be. I whispered to my sister, “I think a certain president might benefit from seeing this film.”
The rest of the day was spent at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. As evidenced by this blog I’m a history nut, so I was in a happy place. I’ve been to various Smithsonian museums before and because of massive crowd sizes the experience wasn’t what I had hoped for. We had chosen a good weekend and while the museum wasn’t empty, the crowd size was manageable.
On Saturday we went to Mt. Vernon. We arrived early when the crowd was sparse and there was little waiting in lines. We were led through Washington’s house and saw some of the original furniture, including the bed in which he died. I both admired and felt sorry for the volunteers working there. Having to give the same presentation to endless groups of tourists had to be mind numbing and surpassed my love of history.
George Washington was a slaveholder and the magnificence of Mt. Vernon would not have been possible without an enslaved workforce. That fact was not glossed over in the presentation while still trying to be dealt with delicately. It was pointed out that Washington had qualms about the practice because he freed his slaves in his will, yet while he was alive he did nothing to challenge the practice. After the house tour, we wandered the grounds on our own. As we did, the slave issue remained in my mind. We were honoring this great man and his beautiful estate, and yet this could also be viewed as a monument to the contradictory nature of our nation. Our fledgling nation’s early economic survival and success depended upon an evil system. And the reward for the descendants of that system is still to be treated as second-class citizens.
As we walked about I noted that almost all the visitors were white, aside from those who I guessed were from different countries. What I didn’t see were any African-American tourists. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising. I was proved wrong about that however, and in a positive way. We arrived at Washington’s tomb just as a ceremony was beginning. A group stood in front of the tomb while a guide explained that Washington wanted to be buried at Mt. Vernon rather than at the Capitol. A young girl volunteered to lead the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance and the guide asked if there were any active military members or veterans in the crowd to lay a wreath at the tomb. Nobody raised a hand and I panicked. I couldn’t be the only veteran there! This definitely was not my thing, I never step forward, I hate to be noticed. Fighting an obligatory urge, my right arm remained frozen to my side. I had voluntarily raised it a long time ago and it had cost me three years of unhappiness. This was not the type of acknowledgement or recognition I would seek. Fortunately someone else stepped forward. I was happy to see it was a black man, the first black tourist I had seen that day. He very solemnly and proudly performed the duty, complete with a salute at the end. Pulled it off a lot better than I would have. The guide thanked and asked him to identify himself. He was a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force. I would have approached and said something complimentary except he was an officer. I hadn’t liked officers in the Navy and I guess I haven’t made peace with that yet.
From Mt. Vernon it was on to Arlington National Cemetery. Dave’s father was interned there, and we went to pay our respects. He had been a Marine and fought in the battles of Saipan and Iwo Jima. I had met him, a kind, decent man, who certainly deserved our thanks and respect. We then walked to the gravesite of JFK. A set of steps up a hill led to the site. The sky had been a bright blue when we were at Mt. Vernon, then clouded over for our visit to Arlington, but the sun broke through again as we climbed the steps. An aura of solemnity encompassed the whole cemetery and was especially noticeable at JFK’s gravesite. Fifty-four years have passed since his death and on this day, and probably every day, there was a stream of people visiting where he had been laid to rest. All I could think was such a terrible loss for our nation.
Sunday dawned with a bright sun but with a chilly wind. I decided to visit the Vietnam Memorial by myself, and agreed to meet up with Dave and Jan later. Our hotel was close to the Capitol so I walked almost the whole length of the mall. With not too many people about it was a peaceful, serene, albeit long walk. I’ve been at the Memorial before and it never fails to impress me. Since it is my generation being memorialized I am biased, but I cannot conceive of a more moving tribute to those fallen.
So many names, too many to comprehend, so I did what I’ve done in the past. I’d stop, pick one name and read it, out loud if no one was near me. I knew nothing about him, where he was from, how he died, only that his name was on a wall because of that awful war. A small show of recognition for the sacrifice he had made. My thoughts turned to my cousin Billy who had recently passed away. We had been very close as boys, less so as adults because we had drifted off in different political directions. I went into the Navy, Billy into the Marines. I was already out and in college when Billy returned from Vietnam. The night he got back he called me, said he had to talk. I drove to his family’s farm and got there about 8PM. I was a little older; we were about 22 and 20. We didn’t drink, we played a card game he had played in Nam, and he talked. I listened. To an unburdening of experiences, fear and trauma. We were still talking when his father got up in the morning to milk cows. It was the night my politics changed, the night I became anti-war. Billy and I never re-visited that conversation. I have done oral history interviews with veterans of WWII and Korea and at a family gathering I asked Billy if he would want to do that. After a long, uncomfortable pause, he nodded and said maybe. He died unexpectedly before that ever happened.
Reading the names on the wall, thinking about my cousin, I had to leave before my emotions became too de-stabilized. I took another long walk, to Ford’s Theater, where I met Dave and Jan. The rest of the day was devoted to Lincoln. We toured the theater, where I learned more about the assassination plot, and then went to Lincoln’s Cottage. Now well within the city’s boundaries, at the time of the Civil War it was a country retreat for Lincoln. As at Mt. Vernon, we walked the same floors, occupied the same space, these great men had.
Delving back into our nation’s history, there was a constant, a theme, that was impossible to escape. Slavery. It was always there. On the backs of enslaved labor so much had been built. And its price has still not been paid. A disproportionate number of names on the Vietnam Wall belong to African-Americans. And yet we have those in this country who wave Confederate and Nazi flags. Two great divides in our country are the Civil War and the Vietnam War, and we are still dealing with each. I also fear we are embarking on a third great divide. Until we come to grips with the racial issue we will not be a healthy, whole, or great nation. How we reach that point I don’t know. A start might be to show the film “E Pluribus Unum” in schools, Legion halls, libraries, community centers across the nation.
ABOUT GARY JENNEKE
At various junctures of his life, Gary has been an indifferent grade school student, poor high school student, good Navy radioman, one-time hippie, passable college student, inveterate traveler, dedicated writer, miscast accountant (except for one interesting stint at a Communist café), part-time screenwriting teacher, semi-proud veteran, unsuccessful retiree and new blogger.
You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The above information was sourced from the following sites and newspapers.
We’d also thank to the following photographers and videographers for the use of their images:
* Lead-In Image (E Pluribus Unum art) – rorem / Shutterstock.com
* Outro (Man-In-Museum Cartoon) – SkyPics Studio / Shutterstock.com
OTHER DAYS IN HISTORIES…
* March 2
* March 9
* March 14
* March 19
* March 23
* March 29
* April 3
* April 13
* April 18
* April 23
* April 28
* May 2
* May 6
* May 10
* May 15
* May 19
* May 26
* June 1
* June 8
* June 13
* June 18
* June 24
* June 29
* July 3
* July 9
* July 13
* July 17
* July 23
* July 30
* August 3
* Stay tuned for more!