I seem to be writing about memory a lot lately. Not sure why, but don’t worry: I’ll get back to writing about books any day now.
This morning, however, I heard on the news that Senator Lautenberg of New Jersey has decided not to run for re-election. Not surprising, perhaps, given that the senator is 89 years old, although I certainly hope that I’ll still be making major life decisions at that age.
No, what took me by surprise is that Lautenberg is the last member of the United States Senate to have served in World War II. That is truly the end of an era.
I do not, I hasten to say, remember World War II myself. It was over before I was born. But when I was a girl it was an important, vivid, and recent memory for all the adults around me. My father served in the Navy, my uncle in the Army. My mother and her sisters and friends told stories of the war years, when they worked and lived as young women with new-found freedom.
When I was in high school World War II was still recent history, less than twenty years in the past. Our teachers remembered it, and some of them had served. Politicians certainly remembered it, and every candidate had his war stories.
A few years later I married Jack Hudson, who had joined the Army at 17 and spent the last few months of the war in the ball turret under the belly of a B17. Jack had lots of war stories, too, most of them involving women.
So in many ways World War II was as much a part of my life as if I had lived through it myself. And it has receded into history without my realizing it.
I think our last president to serve in World War II was the elder George Bush, who is about the same age as Senator Lautenberg. Then we went through a few campaigns in which men were attacked for their service, or lack of it, in Viet Nam. Now we have a Commander in Chief too young even for that war, and a generation of veterans with very different wartime experiences.
This is what happens as the years go by, of course, and I’m grateful for the years I’ve seen and the years still to come. But it took that simple phrase in a radio news story, “last remaining World War II veteran in the Senate,” to bring home the fact that what was recent memory when I was a child, and so much a part of life for so many years, is decades-old history today.