It took me mindlessly peddling away on a stationary bike in the empty gym of Forward Operating Base Gardez in eastern Afghanistan to get it.
I was debating whether to flip the flat screen TV from the Pentagon Channel to something less sensible, when a teaser for an upcoming Pearl Harbor special caught my attention. A number floated across the screen -- 2,402. That's the number of people killed when hundreds of Japanese warplanes brazenly bombed Pearl Harbor the morning of December 7, 1941.
Really... why didn't I know this? The body count struck me -- rather self-centeredly -- because it wasn't too far from another body count I'm more familiar with, 2,983. That's the number of people killed in the September 11th attacks.
Until that moment, December 7th meant little more to me than a question on my 11th grade American History test. I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit I thought the greatest damage done to the U.S. that day was to our sunken battle ships or our bruised superpower ego. But actually, we paid the highest price in human blood.
I guess December 7, 1941 was to that generation what September 11, 2001 is to mine. Putting the Pearl Harbor Bombing in that egotistical context makes me thoroughly get what President Roosevelt meant in his speech to Congress the day after the attacks when he called Dec. 7th "a date which will live in infamy."
Every generation has a date of infamy.
Just as how boomers can recall exactly where their toes were planted and what their fingers were touching the moment they heard Kennedy was shot, I can remember stumbling out of Prof. Gebre-Hewitt's "Even-Shakespeare-Can't-Get-An-A" composition class and linking hands with fellow students who had formed a prayer circle in the middle of our school's courtyard, minutes after news of the terrorist attacks broke.
As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing, I have a nagging thought that while dates with infamy are tattooed to the soul of the generation which experiences them, they lose their sacredness with each new generation.
In 2071 the date September 11, 2001 may be of no more consequence to a teenager than a question on her history test (If they'll still have tests in 2071).
On the day I take my grand-nieces to the memorial at Ground Zero and they ask me what September 11 was all about, I hope I don't respond by spewing venom about how broken the education system is, likewise I hope I don't answer them by simply regurgitating my Sept 11th experience. Oddly enough, I hope I think about December 7th and tell them the story of Doris "Dorie" Miller, the Navy cook aboard the USS West Virginia who physically carried his wounded shipmates, including the ship's captain, out of harms way after their vessel was torpedoed. And if that weren't enough he also manned a machine gun, feeding the Japanese warplanes American brass until he was ordered to abandon ship.
For his selfless actions Miller was awarded the Navy Cross, he was the first African American to receive this award. Several decades later in 1973, the Navy escort ship the USS Miller would be named for the brave sailor, killed in action in 1943.
While my grand-nieces may look at me quizzically, wondering what on earth Dorie Miller and December 7th have to do with September 11th... I'll know... and if I still have my wits about me, I'll think back to the gym at Gardez, remembering what it took me a deployment and a stationary bike to actually "get."
**Disclaimer: Though I am a soldier proudly serving in the U.S. Army, the opinions, gripes, expressions of joy and anguish, or any other meandering thought that end up on this blog are entirely of my own conjuring. They never in any way -- neither closely or even remotely -- reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. **