The turning of the calendar page always prompts reflection, and seldom more so than this year. We have moved from the end of the Donald J. Trump presidency into the middle stages of the Joe Biden years. We have entered the third year of the coronavirus (the first American COVID death occurred two years ago this week). We have progressed from 2021’s U.S. Capitol insurrection and survived this month’s anxiety-and-anguish anniversary of the uprising.
But those beginning-of-the-year reflections underline what Americans have in their memories when they reflect on their own passages. And with each passing year, the American memory changes, for the touchstones that once held meaning increasingly become part of a long-ago past, remembered by fewer.
We no longer, for example, literally “Remember Pearl Harbor,” as the number of living Americans who were 10 years old when the United States entered World War II is below 1% of the population. The phrase now is a metaphor, not a statement of reality — just as “Remember the Alamo” faded when the 1836 battle in San Antonio, Texas, left plausible memory around the time Woodrow Wilson was reelected in 1916. Similarly, “Remember the Maine,” a reference to the bombing of an American battleship in Havana Harbor that was the pretext for the 1898 Spanish-American War, departed from American memory around the time that John Paul I and John Paul II became popes in 1978.
Today, of course, many Americans associate the word “Alamo” with an automobile-rental company; the song “Remember Pearl Harbor,” recorded by Sammy Kaye and his orchestra, is recalled by virtually no one, even though the opening stanza begins this way:
History in every century records an act that lives forevermore.
We’ll recall, as into line we fall,
The thing that happened on Hawaii’s shore.
All this came into focus when, two weeks ago, I wrote about the ways Americans reacted to the World War II challenges of 1943 and compared them with the COVID challenges of our era.
The other day, a letter arrived in the mail — not an email, but a letter the way Americans corresponded eight decades ago: a piece of regular mail with a stamp (which, priced at 3 cents then, was about 1/19th the cost of a stamp today). It was posted — another word with a different meaning today — by Eleanor Zacour, a Pittsburgh woman a few months into her 91st year and someone who quite definitely remembers Pearl Harbor. She wrote about saving clothes hangers and taking them to the old Senator Theatre on Liberty Avenue in exchange for a free movie, and about buying war stamps in grammar school. Today, Americans generally spell the word for a movie house — if they even go to one rather than watch Netflix at home — less elegantly as “theater,” and hardly anyone knows what a “grammar school” is (let alone knows much about grammar itself).
But perhaps the most evocative part of that letter was its penultimate paragraph. “The worst part was — one of my older brothers, Sam Elias, who was always so good to me, died in the Invasion of Normandy,” she wrote. That is part of Mrs. Zacour’s memory, just as the freedom Americans brought to an entire continent after the landings in France should always be part of our national memory, and our national pride. (This assertion is being written by a columnist born a decade after D-Day.)
Britain’s Lord Esher, the Liberal political figure and historian, wrote in his diary after the 1910 funeral of Edward VII, four years before the advent of World War I: “There never was such a break-up. All the old buoys which have marked the channel of our lives seem to have been swept away.”
So it is in our time. Consider how the buoys of our lives have been swept away in recent years:
Conservative Republicans consider Donald Trump, not Ronald Reagan, their political lodestar. In the glitzy Reagan years, Trump was considered louche at best, vulgar at worst, a playboy, an arriviste and a swindler. His critics (and some of his current supporters, in their private ruminations) still believe that. But the Reagan era has passed into the gentility of history, and conservatism no longer has a Gipper air.
The hero of liberal Democrats is Barack Obama, not John F. Kennedy. The Kennedy magic still has power, but only for people over 60, for whom it is infused with an idealistic nostalgia. It was Obama who passed a comprehensive health care plan, the most significant piece of social legislation since Medicare, which became law in 1965, the year the first manned Gemini flights began. (Advice to younger readers, if there are any to this column: Look up “Project Gemini.” It fired your grandparents with wonder.) Liberals believed both Kennedy and Obama did not go far enough. But they missed them when they were gone, and named schools after them.
References to “the war” no longer are allusions to World War II or even Vietnam. Today when people use that term, they are speaking of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The term “post-war,” so often used to mean any time after V-J Day, now refers to the period after Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer. (Younger readers: Look up “V-J Day.”)
The rebellion that matters occurred a year ago, not during the 1960s. The period of free love, feminism and Haight-Ashbury is part of history, and the drug scene of that decade is no more relevant today than the Whiskey Rebellion, which ended in 1794. The rebellion that is relevant now is the siege of the Capitol. The Whiskey Rebellion lasted three years and was confined to western Pennsylvania. We don’t know the length of the current rebellion, nor whether it will be confined to the Capitol.
The “oldies” of the music world were produced in the 1980s, not the 1960s. One of them is “Don’t Know Much,” which was sung by Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville in 1989. It is not the same song as the 1960 Sam Cooke hit. That one opens with a phrase appropriate for the theme of this column: “Don’t know much about history.”
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.