Saturday, March 05, 2011

Goodbye, Frank Buckles


I happened to be working on the newscast desk at NPR last Sunday when the news came across the wire that Frank Buckles, America’s last surviving First World War veteran, had passed away at the age of 110. (He died of natural causes incidentally; I remember calling Allyson to tell her that Jimmy Stewart had died, and her reaction was, “How?” As if he might have died in a parachuting accident.)

I never met Frank, but I feel like I’ve come to known him over the years. I really respected him for embracing his role as the Last Man Standing. He understood the importance of his place in history. He was America’s last living link to the Great War. One week ago, I (or you) could have spoken with spoken with someone who had experienced that war firsthand. Now that opportunity is gone forever. The first draft of the history of the First World War is finished.

I’ve been fascinated by the First World War since I was a kid, and saw the veterans marching at the head of all the parades in Perkasie. (I also remember seeing a few Spanish-American War veterans in the parades, as well; weird to think that I remember the veterans of a nineteenth-century war.) When I worked at Minnesota Public Radio in the mid 90s I did a story about First World War vets for Veterans Day on year. I remember meeting a 99-year-old vet from Wisconsin who still bowled in a league twice a week. He’d shaken hands with Teddy Roosevelt. So I shook the hand that shook the hand...

Another vet I met had lived in the same Minneapolis apartment since the 1920s. His apartment was a time machine. The lamps, appliances, and furniture were at least fifty years old. The neighborhood had changed rather dramatically; it was populated almost entirely by Laotians. It was like something from the movie Being There.

As a history buff, I was drawn to these men. It was almost inconceivable that I could interview soldiers who had served in the trenches on the Western Front. I knew that was a rare opportunity, and I’m glad I took it, because now it’s gone.

Thank you, Frank Buckles. Thank you for your service to our country, and for bearing the standard of your colleagues with incalculable grace.

If the last surviving Second World War veteran lives as long as Frank did, he or she will live until 2039. I just hope I make it that long!

UPDATE: Turns out John Boehner and Harry Reid are refusing to allow Frank's body to lie in the Capitol Rotunda.