First posted at http://whenjohnnyandjanecomemarching.weebly.com/blog July 4, 2015

Every 4th of July I remember that at a fireworks display when I was already middle-aged, my father, Jerome A. Caplan—a World War II veteran—once said quietly, "This smells like a battlefield." The way he said it gave no clue to how that felt for him, and I did not ask. One reason I did not ask was that I had long known both that fireworks are made from gunpowder and that my father had been an Army Captain in the artillery, but I had never connected the two pieces of information together, so I was registering that connection in my head. Another reason I did not ask was that he never asked for anything for himself and never wanted anyone to worry about him, so the absence of audible anguish in his voice and of visible pain on his face did not prompt me to inquire further. And I came to understand only late in life that I had rarely asked my beloved father, who was a wonderful storyteller, about his war experiences, because I could not bear to think of him in danger.

Suddenly this year, there have been lengthy segments in broadcast media about how shattering it can be for servicemembers and veterans to hear and smell fireworks. Were such segments common in previous years, but I tuned them out, too? Or is our country coming to recognize a little about what it is like to be in a war zone and how it can stay with you? A cynical view would be that media people were casting about for a new angle and happened to come up with this.

As the Fourth of July was approaching this year, I happened to be near Long Beach, California, where the massive ship the Queen Mary has been located for decades. The Queen Mary is the ship that carried my late father and massive numbers of other soldiers back to the United States at the ends of their times serving in World War II. The tour guide said last Thursday that the ship had no stabilizers, and that reminded me that my father had mentioned being terribly seasick on the voyage. The vessel that in peacetime carried 2,000 passengers and 1,200 crew in wartime carried 16,000 people.

Sgt. Isaac Pope was my father's 1st Sergeant during The Battle of the Bulge. Their unit was composed of four white officers, and the rest were Black, most but not all of them from the Deep South. My father always used to point to a picture of some of his men and say, "That is Sgt. Pope. He was the sweetest guy you'd ever want to meet. He had had very little education, but in the Army he worked so hard and learned so fast that he was quickly promoted to 1st Sergeant." Now 97 years old, this wise, compassionate, fascinating man was born in Kinston, NC, and lives there now in the North Carolina State Veterans Home. I had the great honor and joy to meet him after my father died nearly six years ago.

Joseph Friedman, a fabulous professional cameraman, went with me to Kinston last year and filmed 4 1/2 hours of Sgt. Pope speaking about his life. We had gone there specifically to hear about his experiences during the War for the film "Is Anybody Listening?" (you can see Sgt. Pope in the trailer at isanybodylisteningmovie.org) but heard much more. He described growing up as the youngest of many children and at the age of 6 picking cotton in the boiling North Carolina sun with his parents. He took us up to and through the war years and his experiences returning to Kinston, marrying, and trying to get a decent job. He talked about his work with the local chapter of the NAACP and his courage (my word, not his) in openly advocating for unionizing the DuPont factory where he worked as a janitor. He related that my father and Gene Jones—a biracial man in their unit who was from Philadelphia—learned that many of the men from the south had not been allowed to vote, and they vowed that this must change. He said that they wrote to General Eisenhower and said we cannot expect them to risk their lives for their country when they have been denied the right to vote. Before they shipped out, they were granted that right.

Sgt. Pope returned on the Queen Mary after WWII, and on that long voyage, he said, the servicemembers had ample time to talk with each other about their experiences at war and their hopes and plans for the future. This kind of opportunity needs to be built in for servicemembers returning today from combat zones or even just from the military life that is vastly different from the civilian world.

Sgt. Pope told me that as the Queen Mary approached the harbor at the end of their trip, a white sergeant ordered, "All of you heading north, get on this side. All of you heading south, get on this other side." Sgt. Pope was heading south, and as he and the others going that way filed past, that sergeant warned them in a menacing tone, "Don't you go thinking that anything has changed!" Sgt. Pope has seen the racism continue in too many ways throughout this country since that time.

When we celebrate the independence of our nation, may we consider how integral to the winning of that independence was the determination to ensure liberty and freedom from oppression for its citizens. Although the wealthy, white, male founders of this country failed to prohibit oppression on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, and age when they proclaimed the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, there have been some strides toward reduction of oppression, but there is such a tragically great distance still to go that it is unconscionable to do less than demand speedy progress toward the guaranteeing of such rights for all. 

©Copyright 2015 by Paula J. Caplan                                               All rights reserved

About the Author

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D.

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist, is an associate at Harvard University's DuBois Institute and former fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Program.

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