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Pearl Harbor, COVID-19 and the importance of collective memory

What Pearl Harbor and World War II were to an earlier generation, the COVID-19 pandemic is (or could be) to the rising generations. What are we learning and what will we pass on to future generations?

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Petty Officer 1st Class Devin Langer, U.S. Navy via Associated Press

I keep a special letter near my desk dated Dec. 7, 2003. 

Maxine Petersen Baugh, my then-84-year-old maternal grandmother, wrote to me that day from her home in North Logan, Utah. I was a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, preparing to preach in the former Soviet Union. The first half of the letter is a reminiscence of Dec. 7, 1941, the date President Franklin D. Roosevelt said would “live in infamy.” “The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii,” my grandma wrote. “Several ships were sunk and several service men (killed). It was a chaotic mess!”

At the time, Maxine was a telephone operator in Logan. Her boyfriend and my future grandpa, Billie Baugh, had recently been accepted into the Naval Air Corps and would go on to train pilots — including future President George H. W. Bush — at Corpus Christi, Texas. During the latter part of the war, Maxine traveled to California with Billie’s parents to be maid of honor at the christening of a ship. The S.S. Logan Victory was named in honor of their hometown because Billie’s brother Clyde was the first Logan native to die at war. His aircraft nosedived in August 1942 while patrolling the coastline of California for enemy planes and ships. “May (this ship) carry on against our ruthless enemies until freedom again is established on earth,” Maxine’s future father-in-law said during the ship launching ceremony of January 16, 1945. “We hope the name Logan will be an omen of safety for this ship and her crew.”

My grandmother’s letter is a relic of the bygone habit of letter writing with pen, paper and elegant cursive penmanship. But more than that, my grandmother’s missive displays the power of two things — the unforgettable collective experience that shaped an entire generation and the preservation and sharing of that memory. I marvel that she was still thinking about Pearl Harbor 62 years after it happened. 

I was 17 years old on Sept. 11, 2001. That is the closest thing my generation has experienced to Pearl Harbor and World War II. I still remember watching the towers crumble on television before I left for another day of high school. The proceeding weeks and months were marked by the warmth of unity and patriotism. But aside from increased security at airports, the events of 9/11 did not affect the details of my life the way the bombing of Pearl Harbor did my grandma in 1941. I was not there in New York or Washington D.C. or Pennsylvania, nor were any of my family or friends. Nobody I know took part in the subsequent wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. I doubt I will be writing my grandkids about 9/11 when I am 84. Even now, just 19 years after that dark day, I rarely find myself thinking about it.

What I can see passing on to my grandchildren are the lessons learned during these drawn out days of the COVID-19 pandemic. What a wonder to experience something together with almost every other occupant of our planet. What an incredible thing to have everyday routines disrupted everywhere.

In this future correspondence, I can imagine myself describing the time when many, in the deep and lonely sleep of atomized, screen-addicted living, awoke to recognize the irreplaceable value of in-person interaction. And the time when technology was more fully tapped, allowing more people to work from home and commute less — giving the office workers among us more time with our kids, more clean air to breathe, more sleep, and thus a more holistic wholeness.

Most importantly, I can imagine mentioning the health care and other essential workers stationed at the front lines. Never before have my wife and I been so grateful for those who teach our children, deliver our mail and stock our supermarket shelves.

Of course, I will share these lessons only if I’m really learning something and choose to remember it. And that is by no means guaranteed for our forgetful species. But our cucumber brains are more likely to pickle the longer they sit in the transformative salt brine of the pandemic.

Remembering includes both the pleasant and the unpleasant, our righteousness and our sin. To omit the latter is to embrace delusion. “We should not be seduced by … charming picture(s) (of the past),” one of Alexander Pushkin’s characters said. “The notion of a golden age is inherent in all people and proves only that they are never pleased with the present and, experience giving them little hope for the future, adorn the irretrievable past with all the flowers of their imagination.”

I learned the importance of preserving all aspects of the past from another woman affected by World War II much differently than my grandma. Valentina Pavlovna Chudaeva was a commander of antiaircraft artillery in the Soviet army. After describing some of the unspeakable horrors of her wartime experience, she told the Nobel Prize-winning oral historian Svetlana Alexievich why she and other women were so willing to share their stories.

“It’s terrible to remember,” she said, “but it’s far more terrible not to remember.”

What Pearl Harbor and World War II were to my Grandma Baugh and Valentina Chudaeva, the COVID-19 pandemic is (or could be) to the rising generations. Thus, Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day ought to be extra special to the inhabitants of 2020. One day we too will pass on to generations yet unborn our pearls of wisdom gained during this strange time of face masks and unending Zoom calls.

Thanks to that simple letter from my grandmother, I look at December 7 as a date that will live not only in infamy but in blessed memory.

Samuel B. Hislop is a writer with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a senior editor with Public Square Magazine. His opinions are his own.