Monday, December 7, 2009

Pearl Harbor and the Bottom Line

The same can be said in reverse; what is travel without history. Growing up in Europe both were very much a part of my early life and continue to be defining personal characteristics today. My family traveled constantly around the United States and across the Atlantic thanks to my father's career in the military. We lived in Germany, a nation saturated in castles, cathedrals and human catastrophe. On the first plane ride I can remember my mother and sisters traveled to Hawaii to visit my father on shore leave from Vietnam. I was five years old the first time I ever saw the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

I've been back at least three times since then. Bottom line for me is, I can't pass up a chance to travel and I certainly can't pass up a chance to visit compelling history.

Today is December 7th, an ordinary Monday for much of the world yet only one calendar day removed from that infamous Sunday 68 years ago. Almost by tradition the event gets maybe 90 seconds of coverage on news networks at the end of a scheduled broadcast, maybe including an interview with a surviving veteran, a cook, a gunnie, signalman or some other average Joe just waking up to find the world as he knew it had changed forever.

In its day, December 7th was to the United States what September 11th is to contemporary culture, a brazen attack on American soil, early in the morning and when the country least expected it. No one believed it could happen, the country was safe across two oceans and secure behind a massive military arsenal that few antagonists in their right mind would provoke. War in 1941 may in fact have been imminent but it was never supposed to happen here.

Pearl Harbor is a working United States naval base but that is not what it's known for. It is the command center of the largest single military operation area of any navy in the entire world but that is not what it is known for. The name derives from its history as a center of pearl harvesting but that also is not what it is known for. The name is synonymous, nearly interchangeable with that of the U.S.S. Arizona still lying on the bottom of the harbor and straddled by the Arizona Memorial.

It is a stunningly beautiful place. Clear water laps gently at the shores and the sides of the ship while overhead maybe a few clouds provide contrast to the blue sky that never fails to draw the eye as visitors look to the heavens trying to imagine the air filled with shrieking bullets, whistling bombs and diving aircraft while concussion impacts and full on explosions wreak devastating havoc in every direction around the base. The complex today includes a documentary theater, a submarine museum and landscaped grounds with information pavilions as well as the ship itself. The lucky few will see an active ship returning to port, the entire ship's company standing in attention and saluting their 1100 fallen brethren still buried in the hulk of the Arizona 30 feet under water.

The truest, most haunting sight of all are without question the tear drops of oil still bubbling from the bunkers of the Arizona. The ship continues to "bleed" or "cry" today with several thousand tons of oil slowly seeping to the surface, stirring gut-wrenching emotions from visitors and hot debate from environmentalists worried about the damage to the harbor eco-system. Even on the sunniest, brightest day in memory, no one comes away untouched by their time at the Memorial.

Many do not see the point in taking vacation time in paradise to visit a national tragedy; why get all depressed when we're just here to have a good time, they ask? Some avoid Oahu all together, preferring the Eden-like environs of Kauai or Maui to the hustle of Honolulu. Certainly for those who have never been to Hawaii it is not the main selling point of the tourist boards. All of that is regrettably understandable.

I live in Dallas, a city still trying to come out from under the shadow of its most popular attraction, The School Book Depository from where Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy. All the same, I would no more visit Southfork Ranch and skip Dealey Plaza where the assassination took place than I would travel all the way to Hawaii just for the surf and sand. The last time I went a new addition was there to greet me: the U.S.S. Missouri moored just to the south of her older sister, protecting her. Where one ship started the war for the United States, the other ended the war for the world in Tokyo Bay.

Waikiki, nothing! It's a beach! The Arizona Memorial is history, and it's only at Pearl Harbor.

Gotta go!

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