My grandfather chose an auspicious day to die. For having passed away when he did, he obliged his family and friends to gather this Memorial Day weekend to memorialize him. There is no more fitting tribute to a patriot.
Exactly twenty years before the day he died, I was blessed with the experience of being able to visit Normandy with a veteran of the Second World War. My Grandfather and I toured the American cemetery on a plateau atop Pointe du Hoc, a cliff scaled by Rangers 48 years before. While Grandpa served in another theater on the opposite side of the globe, the poignancy of the moment was no less real: there I was, a mere boy in my twenties, with a man then 78 years old, surrounded by graves filled with the bodies of men of his generation who died younger than me.
A lot has changed in 20 years. In May of ‘92 his last grandchild hadn’t yet been born and his first great-grandchild was still a few years away. Today there are 27 of them, with another soon to come.
A lot has changed since that day nearly 68 years ago when the Rangers scaled the cliffs of France. Of Grandpa’s many progeny to be, only my mother had yet been born, but barely a year old, she was still in diapers. Six more children and a total of 24 grandchildren would follow.
A lot has changed since that day almost a full century ago when John Roderick O’Connor was placed upon this Earth. In 1913 Babe Ruth was just a teenager at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, Prohibition hadn’t yet been tried, Russia still had a czar, The United States and Britain had never been allies, and Germany and the United States had never been at war. In 1913 medicine was primitive; Grandpa’s own mother would die when he was only six from an appendicitis that today would be so unremarkable that it routinely results in only out-patient surgery and a tiny scar. In 1913 phones were tethered, cars were uncommon, airplanes were rare, and computers did not exist.
There was a book I remember on a coffee table in my Grandparents’ home. It was called “This American Century.” It was one of those compilations of pictures from Life magazine that told the story of a hundred years. That book, and those like it, attempted to portray the twentieth century as a time when it was America’s destiny to prevail. However, destiny always looks more certain in retrospect than it does going forward.
My Grandfather’s life was that book. His story was the story of an American century—the century that wrecked Nazism and the Soviet Union, conquered polio and smallpox, ended institutionalized racism, and put a man on the moon. Another book called the men and women who accomplished those feats, the “Greatest Generation.” Although I never discussed it with him, I know that a man of my Grandfather’s humility would have objected to the name. His generation was not the greatest, he would have argued, because the greatest is still yet to come.
Today, as I write these words from Germany, where one hears a constant stream of negative news of fiscal woes, it seems counterintuitive to believe that our greatest days are still in the future. But today’s troubles pale compared to those that confronted the world of 1913. Before Grandpa was thirty, he would see the globe engulfed by war, Spanish influenza would ravage those who survived, communism would be forced on Earth’s biggest country, depression would devastate economies, genocide would be imposed on millions, and a second world war would rage hot across the planet. Sometimes a little perspective is necessary in order to appreciate what we have. And what we have is possible because we stand on the shoulders of men like my Grandfather.
From the vantage point of the today, it is easy to believe that Americans like my Grandfather were destined to overcome so much and to advance so far. But they were not. The men beneath my feet at Pointe du Hoc died not knowing if their deaths had been in vain; but those that followed them on those beaches made certain that they were not.
There is nothing special about the land bounded by two oceans and stuck between the Rio Grande and the 49th Parallel. America itself possesses no particular greatness except that which it derives from its individual citizens. What we perceive as destiny is actually the result of desire and perseverance. Grandpa’s generation achieved so much only because it hungered for more.
John Roderick O’Connor has come and gone. We who remain march in the footsteps of those who stormed those beaches. We owe it to him and to them to reach greater heights. Our charge, therefore, is not to lament his passing, but to celebrate his life. And we celebrate that life best by moving forward, by living our lives as richly as my Grandfather lived his. We fail him, and ourselves, if we settle, if we don’t challenge the status quo, if we accept the “good enough,” if we don’t constantly strive for more. On this Memorial Day weekend let us remember that, exactly as it was a hundred years ago, it is still true today: our destiny—America’s destiny—is what we make it. Let us make this next century even better than the one that men like John Roderick O’Connor gave us.
John Roderick O’Connor
October 26, 1913 – May 21, 2012