Thursday, June 25, 2009

Something I Will Teach my Children

When I was about 12, my father set forth a household edict. Every night, we would gather in the kitchen, and by the flickering light of a kerosene lamp (for this was before we had commercial power way out here), he would read aloud. The book we begin with was Farnhams Freehold, by Robert Heinlein. A modest story, about a man and his family, locked in their bomb shelter and thrown into an unknown world by the startling power of nuclear war.
I don't think we ever got to another book after we finished Farnham's Freehold. Things changed, attitudes changed. Within a year we had commercial power, and the bright, harsh, light of electric lamps lacks a certain something. It encourages families to gather, independent of one another across couches and recliners, around the television.
But, my father started something - By the time I was 15, I had read almost everything Heinlein wrote. I have, since then, re-read about all of it at least once. Heinlein is one of my favorite authors, and two of his books in particular have had a great influence on me, my desires, drives and attitudes. Those two would be Tunnel in the Sky, and Glory Road. Both are deserving of their own entries, and I'll get to that eventually.
There is another Heinlein work which means a great deal to me, an essay taken from a speech given to a graduating class at the U.S. Naval Academy, titled The Pragmatics of Patriotism.
It is a bit dated, and some of the specific hopes and fears alike are far from occurring today, but the overall idea is, as it has forever been, sound. It is something everyone should read.
The essay was published in a collection of Heinlein's non-fiction work, titled Expanded Universe, and was for a long time unavailable online. I sat down and transcribed it once, so I could share it with a select few people, but my digital copy has since been lost. Earlier tonight I was curious to see if I could possibly find it online, and viola, I see it is indeed now widely available.
I post it, so that those unaware of it can read it - As it is something everyone should read.

The Pragmatics of Patriotism, by Robert Anson Heinlein

"I said that 'Patriotism' is a way of saying 'Women and children first.' And that no one can force a man to feel this way. Instead he must embrace it freely. I want to tell about one such man. He wore no uniform and no one knows his name, or where he came from; all we know is what he did.

In my home town sixty years ago when I was a child, my mother and father used to take me and my brothers and sisters out to Swope Park on Sunday afternoons. It was a wonderful place for kids, with picnic grounds and lakes and a zoo. But a railroad line cut straight through it.

One Sunday afternoon a young married couple were crossing these tracks. She apparently did not watch her step, for she managed to catch her foot in the frog of a switch to a siding and could not pull it free. Her husband stopped to help her. But try as they might they could not get her foot loose. While they were working at it, a tramp showed up, walking the ties. He joined the husband in trying to pull the young woman's foot loose. No luck.

Out of sight around the curve a train whistled. Perhaps there would have been time to run and flag it down, perhaps not. In any case both men went right ahead trying to pull her free... and the train hit them. The wife was killed, the husband was mortally injured and died later, the tramp was killed - and testimony showed that neither man made the slightest effort to save himself. The husband's behavior was heroic... but what we expect of a husband toward his wife: his right, and his proud privilege, to die for his woman. But what of this nameless stranger? Up to the very last second he could have jumped clear. He did not. He was still trying to save this woman he had never seen before in his life, right up to the very instant the train killed him. And that's all we'll ever know about him.

THIS is how a man dies. This is how a MAN . . . lives"

1 comment:

Hat said...

I'm glad I read that. Thanks. Everybody should read it, I agree.

"the bright, harsh, light of electric lamps lacks a certain something. It encourages families to gather, independent of one another across couches and recliners, around the television." Sad, indeed, because it does.