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Life as Performance Art

    If you don’t mind me saying so, I think the world is getting a bit too spooky.  This war in Israel has been going on for months and tempers are getting short about the number of civilian casualties – and rightfully so.  That testiness has spilled over to many American colleges and universities, and each night we see more segments of violence and increased tensions.  The election is upon us, and the wrangling is getting worse. Scientists and commentators are worried the avian flu may slip into bovine flu, and then be transmitted to humans.  We are losing our pollinators and the bird population is declining.  The list goes on.  That includes a click-bait headline from a news service that AI has predicted when life on the planet comes to an end.  That seemed alarming, but the text told us that AI says it won’t happen until about 300 million years from now.  At least that won’t endanger my pension.
    No wonder some people are worried about waking up dead the next morning.  They seem to believe things have never been so bad, and it is only going to get worse.
    Then, the other day we received a thick letter from General Eisenhower’s daughter, asking for some financial support for her foundation.  As a gift and encouragement, there was a replica of a ration card from World War Two.  It was suggested that we might want to show or give it to a young person and talk about the war efforts on the home front.  Food, clothing, shoes, gasoline, and other commodities were rationed for the duration of the war, the better to support the armed forces fighting the Axis.
    Written on the back of the booklet was “Families were given ration booklets, just like this one, to make sure people didn’t purchase more than they needed.  Every American sacrifices during World War II so you could live in a free world.”
    All of that took place long before my time, but I certainly heard plenty about it from The Olds and my parents.  The closest I came to rationing was during the oil embargo and gasoline shortage in the mid-1970s.  They, however, had survived the Spanish Flu when they were infants, the Great Depression, World War Two, Korea, the Cold War, and the polio epidemic.  There was more, of course.
     Historians point out that during the Depression and war years people believed in the importance of ‘pulling together.’  Regardless of where one’s ancestors originated, income, education, or anything else, Americans were all in this together.  The majority acted accordingly.
    There have always been challenges. As the eminent Roman historian, Edmund Gibbon, observed: “Rome was not destroyed by external enemies, but by internal strife.  The empire tore itself apart through corruption, greed, and political infighting, leaving it vulnerable to outside forces?”
    He wrote that about the time of the American Revolution, and many of us would say that it applies today.
    A great part of what held our nation together were some very creative ideas.  When the country was not coming out of the Depression, the Roosevelt administration came up with creative ideas such as Social Security, the Works Progress Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corp.  There were others.
    The CCC was of particular importance because young men volunteered to work on the infrastructure and improve our natural resources.  They signed up for two years, and received their work clothes and tools, “three squares” (meals) a day, a place to live, and were paid thirty dollars a month.  Twenty dollars was sent to their parents.  In return, they built roads, created, or improved state and national parks, cleaned rivers and cleared brush.
   By the time the program ended in 1943, they had built 651,000 miles of road, repaired some 125,000 bridges, fixed up some 12,000 public buildings, created about 8,000 parks, and built 900 airport runways.
   Much of their CCC life was like the traditions of the military such calisthenics each morning, marching in formation to their work site, obeying their supervisors, with “lights out” each night.  Alcohol was off limits.  They learned disciple and self-discipline, teamwork, and other valuable skills.  A few years later when America went to war, in countless ways, these men were prepared to exchange uniforms and learn new skills.
     They also were exposed to fellow citizens from around the country. In the barracks, Back Bay Boston accents mixed with southern drawls and Texas twangs.  Young men who had never seen beef except at the market or on a plate had an introduction to caring for livestock.
    When war came, the War Department had learned lessons from the CCC, and adopted the best ones into military training.  The most important lesson of all was simple: “We are all Americans.”
    Today, as we watch the protestors camping out on university quadrangles or imitate the worst of behavior of January 6th with their own storming and destruction of university buildings, perhaps it is time to seriously consider what worked well in the past.
   We have lost too much of what it means to be an American, true love for our country, and pride in the best aspects of our heritage.
   Brace yourselves for an idea that will not be popular:  Two years of national service to our country. When young men or women finished high school and turns eighteen, everyone does two years of national service. The only exceptions are for those who are physically or mentally incapacitated.  No flimsy excuses of an ingrown toenail, or anything like that.  And no using daddy’s money and influence, nor family name to get wriggle out of it.
   Ideally, there would be opportunities for those who want the training offered by the military to serve in that capacity.  A young man from our parish enlisted in the Navy.  After basic training, his first posting was at a base in Florida to learn important new skills.  When he leaves the Navy he will put those skills to work in his civilian employment, and carry with him all of the respect and self-discipline he learned while in uniform.  No wonder employers prefer to hire our veterans.
     Others would have the opportunity to work in public service, much like men did in the CCC.  If we look around, just in our little area alone, we see there is plenty of work to be done.
    More than anything else, it is the ethos of service, respect, and a sense of accomplishment that will keep our nation alive and strong.  It provides yet another benefit.  Many high school students have a vague idea about their future. It is not that they are lazy or listless, but uncertain.  That can be a good thing.  Others believe they know exactly what they want to do, but soon change their college major to pursue a different career.  Those who can afford it often choose to follow the English tradition of a “gap year” between leaving school and university so they can figure out their future.  More importantly, they can figure out who they are.
    Two years of national service would certainly help young men and women figure out their future career.  With two years of added maturity, they can better understand what they want in life, and what they do not want.
    And all of us benefit by living in a country that is not likely to be torn apart by “greed, corruption,  and political infighting”

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