SATURDAY'S parade down Main Street here in Pine Bluff, Ark., got me thinking -- about the troops, about parades, about the spirit of the time and about the spirit of other times.
My father was one of those merchants who put their children in their advertisements. It couldn't have been because I was cute. Maybe it was a way of personalizing the various businesses he went through all at the same modest location on Texas Avenue in Shreveport: secondhand shoes and shoe repair, dry goods, furniture on easy credit terms -- Ben Greenberg was a man of successive enthusiasms.
One reason I can remember them all is that the succession of calendars and flyers with my picture on them now represents a kind of photographic-commercial-cultural record of my childhood. I started out as The Little Shoemaker, age 3. Chubby with long locks, complete with shoemaker's apron, last, awl and hammer, there I am squinting into the Louisiana sun in 1940.
Then came The War, Second World. The calendar for 1944, now on the back of my office door, shows a little boy in Army uniform -- Class A, complete with brass buttons, tie and garrison cap -- almost lost midway to the summit of an immense mound of used Army boots in the warehouse my father had rented. He had become "Greenberg Shoe Company -- Wholesale Dealer in Second Hand Shoes, Clothing & Hats." The message on the calendar proclaims: "For More Profit Buy Your Needs From The Little Shoemaker in the Army." I had been conscripted.
The picture says a lot about 1944: It was okay to depict little kids in uniform. The whole country was at war. Our house, I remember, was full of soldiers from the Army Air Force base at Barksdale. (There was an eligible daughter at home, and she wound up marrying one of them in a ceremony in which groom and best man wore their uniforms.) I can still remember almost all their first names, ranks and military specialties -- bombardier, navigator, pilot, gunner, quartermaster, clerk-typist.
Today they would be called role models. I went to movies at the base when the more tolerant boyfriends would let me tag along. Kids grew up knowing the difference between a P-47 Thunderbolt, a P-51 Mustang, a P-38 Lightning, and B-17 and B-24 bombers -- and learned the outlines of enemy and allied planes from those little aircraft-recognition cards we traded.
One knew without being told what the progression of life was: school, college, the service, a job or maybe graduate school before settling down.
The service was as expected a stage as any other. One day I was buying comic books on Shreveport's Texas Street and the next marching down it with an M-1 on my shoulder in high school ROTC. It was only natural. One grew up seeing others in uniform -- the role models -- and then it was your turn. It was expected.
Then came a time -- then came decades -- when military service was viewed as something else. Not just something all the guys did but an aberration. Not just a necessary bother and maybe danger but an unfair exception to the natural scheme of things. An imposition. An unfair interruption. Why, it was almost un-American.
A different set of expectations took shape some time between Korea and Vietnam: The world was now supposed to be a nice, peaceful, secure place where wars were unnecessary and anybody stupid enough or unlucky enough to serve in the military certainly wasn't going to be considered a role model. Servicemen came back in the middle of the night one by one; parades went out of fashion.
Maybe it was the stalemate and defeat that did it, or the general uncertainty about what was now expected of an enlightened citizen. Whatever the reason, to dress a 7-year-old in a military uniform -- and then advertise it! -- would have raised some eyebrows.
The message of Saturday's parade, and of all the homecomings that have greeted the returning troops, is simple. And it has gone too long unsaid to veterans of one conflict after another: You did a great job. We're proud of you. You remind us that the United States of America is a force for good in the world and that evil must be faced down. The uniform you wear is something to inspire pride and respect. Thank you. We had almost forgotten. And there are some things a free country cannot afford to forget.