samedi 14 novembre 2009

On Armistice Day...

Heidi's bronze relief work

Neko's dirty face

A splendid late fall day

Red Heidi, posing not too far from Red Square
On November 11, the University of Washington held a ceremony to honor war veterans and also to commemorate the Medal of Honor Monument that my friend Heidi Wastweet had been working on for three years. In addition to being a red red redhead, Heidi is an amazingly talented, self-taught maker of sculptures and medals. Here are a few photos taken on November 11, which turned out to be a splendid fall day in spite of what had been forecast. Neko marked the occasion in her own way, furiously digging a hole in the ground.

My sister Carolyn did Heidi's hair just before the event, turning her back into the vibrant redhead she is deep down. Notice how great her hair looks with her cool red suede coat and against the remaining fall leaves and red brick building.

I was amazed at the turnout, as well as at the number of VIPs in attendance. Washington's own Governor Grinch was there. I actually like our governor, who ran circles around that dolt Dino Rossi in their gubernatorial campaign debates. She is super smart. But there is no denying it: she looks like The Grinch.

The day before the event, as I scurried across campus in the pouring rain, cursing the wind and hoping I would make it to my 1:30 class without losing my cheap H&M umbrella, the VIP seating section and stage were being set up. I was having second thoughts about attending, but wanted to be there for Heidi's big moment. I breathed a sigh of relief when the sun rose the next morning on a clear day.

The ceremony itself was quite moving, as these types of event tend to be. War and killing always put a lump in people's throats, don't they? November 11 is a much bigger deal in Europe, at least in France, where it is a bona fide holiday that commemorates the Armistice that ended the First World War. The ceremony in Paris, repeated on a much smaller scale throughout France, is always solemn and well attended. Part of what makes it so moving is the relighting of the flame of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. And because each year sees a diminishing number of "poilus", the name given to French combattants in WWI. The last living poilu died last year, at the age of 110. This year, for the first time, a representative of the country that France defeated in 1918 -- Germany -- was present at the ceremony in Paris. More amazing still, this year's commemoration came on the heels of the one marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And the head of state standing by Nicolas Sarkozy's side, Angela Merkel, is from the "other" side of that Wall. The Prime Minister who came in from the cold.

So why is the 11 novembre such a big deal for Europeans? Well, for starters, the war was fought on their soil and divided them bitterly. In the space of four years, more than 10 million people died and more than 20 million became disabled. Empires fell, nations realigned, the precursor to the UN was created in a futile attempt to prevent future wars on this scale. Less than 20 years later, Europe was once again plunged into the dark night of war. The reticence of most European nations to resort to arms as a way of settling conflict needs to be understood in light of this experience. And sadly, it all too often is not understood over here, where we still tend to romanticize war and the call to arms from a very safe distance. For us, war is "over there". And we are "over here".