I once knew a couple, long passed, who had an innate ability to stare down evil and reject the fear it relishes.
They were like most Americans their age, of the cohort journalist Tom Brokaw so appropriately labeled the Greatest Generation.
They didn’t cower from danger. They confronted it, leaning in, jaws set, audacity on their sleeves.
We could use some of that courage today, to help calm the waters roiled by the political right and collaborating media stoking terror, hair-trigger horror and retreat from nearly every conceivable menace, real and concocted.
Fear is their currency. Panic is their politics. Exploiting both is their pathway to power.
Republican presidential contenders who refuse to condemn violence at Planned Parenthood clinics, red-state governors who would deny sanctuary to refugees — they could learn what leadership and greatness means from how our elders comported themselves in dangerous times.
Many elders like this couple were raised in the Great Depression, unencumbered by privilege, accustomed to bending their backs to make do. And always, instinctively, they understood the difference between good and evil, between right and wrong.
In their prime of life, as Hitler murdered his way through Europe and Tojo pillaged Asia, they enlisted and went to war after Pearl Harbor was attacked.
He served as a carrier torpedo-bomber pilot in the Atlantic theater, she in the Women’s Army Air Corps for military logistics support.
Like most of their contemporaries, they served without hesitating or questioning the rightness of their cause.
They were scared, like everyone else, but they believed in their country and trusted its leaders to be wise, to make good decisions — mistakes and all. It sustained their courage and will to carry on.
The war ended, and they both went to college on the GI Bill, met, fell in love, started a family and slipped happily into the mundanity of the vast American middle class. She became a high school history teacher, he an accountant with a new agency called NASA.
Sent to Alabama during a time of great social upheaval, he was helping send people to the moon, while she taught her mostly white students about the newly minted, nation-changing Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts — both darkly contentious in the Deep South.
Then, for the second time in their lives, evil came to their door.
One night, their family was awakened by the sound of shattering glass. Hooded men smashed a window to their home, climbed the balcony and began rapping their bats on the bedroom windows where the children slept.
White hoods backlit by flames, they had burned the shape of a giant cross into the man’s beloved Bermuda grass lawn.
The couple quickly moved the kids to safety, then faced the hooded gang, who taunted “n****r-loving Yankees.”
The couple surmised that her lesson plan at the public high school, insufficiently racist and hate-filled, had provoked the sheets.
“You know us,” the dad spoke calmly, firmly. “Who are you? Show yourselves.”
The mom was less sanguine: “You call yourselves Christians? Come here and I’ll tear those hoods off you myself. I know who you are!”
And she did. Some were her students, others their dads. There was no point calling the cops — some were probably among the hooded.
Clear that the couple wouldn’t bow to their terror, the Klan dispersed.
Through the years, by steady, determined example, the couple taught their children that evil cuts souls to the quick, and to resist it, no matter how frightening, because it leaves scars.
More than 25 years after that night, their youngest asked his parents about their Great War, about why we imprisoned Japanese-Americans yet asked their sons to fight in Europe, about how such a big-hearted nation could deny entry to European Jews begging for life.
She never agreed with those evils and remained ashamed of the scars they cut into our nation’s soul. Americans then were besot by bigotry and fear, she said, and most knew it was wrong.
Mom was certain we’d learned as a country never to do it again. Dad quietly nodded his affirmation.
The Greatest Generation’s legacy is of courage, righteousness and calm in the face of adversity.
We can live up to that heritage now.
Or we can go down in history as the generation that cowered under its covers and blamed others for our troubles.
It’s on us to define anew the meaning of courage.
Tom Fulks is a former reporter and opinion writer whose three-decade career included positions with The Tribune, Five Cities Times-Press-Recorder and New Times. He has been a political campaign consultant for many local races. His column appears twice a month in The Tribune.
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