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Saturday, December 08, 2007

Veterans' Day Assembly

Delayed post (originally written 11/10):

This was the first year in my memory that Weston High School held a Veterans’ Day Assembly. It was extraordinarily well done, and a truly moving experience to boot. Second World War veterans and their families were the invited guests.

Because Veterans’ Day comes on a Sunday this year, the assembly was held yesterday, two days early. It was a complicated production, consisting of an elaborate sequence of performances and talks, but everything proceeded like clockwork. The Weston High School Wind Ensemble played a smoothly integrated medley of military marches. Men and women in the audience who were veterans of the various services (or whose family members were) rose to stand whenever the march for their branch was played; the silent rising and sitting contributed a sense of personal meaning and even grandeur.

The marches were followed by a video montage of Second World War events and two songs from the era performed by the Golden Tones Senior Chorus.

I had originally been skeptical when I had seen the program ahead of time, for there were two keynote speakers listed to follow the chorus. But I need not have been skeptical, as both talks were effective and even captivating. (And, as far as I could tell from where I sat, the students in the audience were remarkably attentive, not merely well-behaved.) First came Harry Jones, a spry 94-year-old whose personal reminiscences harked back to the day he joined the Navy, immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The second speaker was Dan Oliff, an 85-year-old youngster, father of our current Superintendent of Schools, Alan Oliff. Some of my colleagues and students had low expectations here, on the theory that no one could have refused a request by the boss to have his father speak, no matter how bad he might be. But anybody who had low expectations must have been pleasantly astonished at the fascinating content and attention-holding delivery, which earned a standing ovation. As the Town Crier wrote in its summary:
Oliff, who served as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific, spoke of his transformation from a small-town New Jersey boy “interested pretty much just in driving, dating and dancing” to learning about a wider world, where — among other things — segregation of African-Americans was condoned.

As for his combat experience in the Marshall Islands, Saipan, Tinian and, finally, Iwo Jima, “We could literally smell fear on the battlefield. It was a complete shock. I thought I was a tough guy and there were guys who were tougher than me. But we sat and cried. Don’t ever challenge the virility of a Marine who cries.”

Every soldier who came back, he went on, suffered what is now called post-traumatic stress syndrome. “Some still have flashbacks. Others are not dealing with a full deck.”

Still, he insisted to the high school students in the audience, “although we were called the Greatest Generation, you are the Greatest Generation. If your way of life is challenged, you will rise to the occasion.”
The program concluded with additional musical performances, preceded by a brief but very effective talk by two high-school seniors, Emma Pearson and Michela Hattabaugh, about their experience visiting the American cemetery in Normandy.

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