Richard’s Year of Movies — Saving Private Ryan

Both my grandfathers served in World War II.  My dad’s father was in a tank battalion.  When I was a kid, my grandmother gave me a bunch of his mementos from the war:  European currency, spent rifle shells, even a German helmet and motorcycle goggles.  At the time, they were simply abstract things to me, stuff my grandfather had.  As I grew older and came to understand more about the war and what it meant, I came to look on those things with a little more awe.  I never knew my dad’s father; he died on Christmas Eve 1968, two and a half weeks after I was born.  And I’ve come to regret never knowing him, never hearing the stories behind those objects, never knowing what he did and saw over there.

Of course, if he was anything like my mom’s father, he probably wouldn’t have said much about it.  For most of my life, my other grandfather was a jolly old man who loved fishing and spoiling his grandkids.  When I was very young, he lived next door to us, and every morning I’d wait to see his finger pressed against my window as he went to work, not moving it until I’d put mind up there to join his.  He always made us laugh, and in a lot of ways, I hope that’s the kind of old man I turn into.

One of the last times I saw him was in the fall of 1998.  I was talking about having seen Saving Private Ryan.  His health was beginning to deteriorate, and his memory wasn’t what it used to be, but when I mentioned that film, he almost immediately said, “I lived through enough of that.  I don’t need to see it again.”  Later, we found out he’d seen some terrible things during the war, such as being told they didn’t have enough food to feed their prisoners, and that statement simply being left hanging in the air as their commanding officer walker away.  And we never knew until it was too late in his life for him to talk lucidly about it.

I remember not being upset when he died.  He’d been in decline for so long, his passing really didn’t come as a shock.  I shed no tears; I didn’t even visit him in the hospital near the end, as I didn’t want that to be my final memory of him. I stood with my mother as she and her family scattered his ashes in his favorite fishing spot (somewhat illegally, which he would have appreciated), and I said my good-byes and moved on.

A year or so later, I watched Saving Private Ryan again, and as the credits rolled and John Williams’ elegiac “Hymn to the Fallen” played, the enormity of the fact that he was part of that sacrifice slammed into me.  And the tears that didn’t come when he died poured out of me.  It was totally unexpected, and not totally born out of sadness.

So now every Memorial Day I watch Saving Private Ryan.  To me, that film is every bit a monument as all the marble statues in DC put together.  It reminds us that these men we sometimes elevate to such heroic stature were, in the end, just men after all.  Sons and brothers and husbands and fathers (and eventually grandfathers) who didn’t see themselves as being on some grand adventure, but simply as men doing their duty, doing a job that needed to be done so they could just go home and forget about the awful ordeal they’d been through.

Near the end of Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks tells Matt Damon’s character to “earn this,” to be worthy of the sacrifice made for him.  And I’m still convinced that the washed-out American flag that provides the final image of the film is Spielberg saying he doesn’t think we’ve earned it ourselves.  Tomorrow people are going to barbecue and drink beer and enjoy their day off from work. And a lot of folks will make a great show of wearing a flag pin or posting some empty patriotic nonsense they saw on someone’s Facebook page on their own Facebook status and think that’s enough.  Whatever you do tomorrow, even you don’t set foot in a cemetery, take some time out to think about those who died in service to their country. And remember that they died not for the symbols so many will display tomorrow simply by rote, but for the ideas and beliefs behind those symbols.  I’d like to think my grandfathers didn’t march through hell for a piece of cloth or a song, but for my right to sit here typing this right now.

And I hope I’ve earned it.

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