On Memorial Day and the Perfect Paragraph

D-Day: The Normandy InvasionThere’s this picture of my grandfather, he’s sitting on a porch and wearing a huge smile and pants up to his nipples (1950s). His slim head is accentuated by ears like a Koala bear. A picture of my other grandfather has him in a pub wearing a Leprechaun look of beard and no mustache.

Outwardly, there’s nothing striking in the pictures, they look ordinary enough and are doing ordinary things. I can see my resemblance in them – red beard in grandfather #2 and while my ears are unKoalalike, I do have the ability to catch fireflies in my teeth when I smile.  Despite the ordinariness of the photos, there is an underlying mood to them that until recently I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

After wondering for a long time what that mood was, I finally decided that it was appreciation.

Grandfather #1 spent the war in Burma and on troop transports all over the Atlantic and Pacific. He came home to raise seven kids and work in granite. Grandfather #2 spent the war in the Pacific winning silver stars for bravery and getting wounded multiple times. He came home to a hero’s parade in Philadelphia, which he purposefully avoided, and worked in real estate. So sitting on porches and in pubs was not a for granted life right. They earned it.

As it’s Memorial Day stories like these are bound to be told over potato salad and hot dogs at picnics. These will be mixed in with other stories having far less happy endings.

Here’s another. Paul Fussell, social historian and literary critic who died last Tuesday, went into the war with hopes of being a journalist, but changed his mind after his sergeant was killed beside him in France in 1945. He dedicated much of his career to removing myth and romance from war as it is represented in books, movies and the media.

Most people know Fussell for his critical literary studies, but my students know him as a writer of the perfect paragraph. This is how I refer to him in class, thus giving my students a glimpse into what constitutes as hero-worship in my deranged cerebellum. Since he’s up there with Kermit the Frog, Indiana Jones and Jimmy Page, they are not wrong to question my sanity.

Nevertheless, for a $15.90 education in academic writing buy ‘The Great War and Modern Memory,’ and revel in beautifully written, perfectly sculpted paragraphs. They start with the controlling idea, stabilize it with informational support, and then support it with evidence, sometimes experience, and then bring it all together in a beautiful conclusion with analysis. My students roll their eyes as I read their essays and write on the board the anachronistic question I rule every writing class with – HWFDI? How Would Fussell Do It?

It is how I plan on celebrating this Memorial Day.

Fussell’s life was changed by war and while it has influenced me positively, it surely was not such a positive thing for him. And certainly not for my students. So whether you celebrate Memorial Day with stories and potato salad, remembering fallen friends and loved ones, or torturing students with academic texts, please don’t forget to remember those people who couldn’t take days like today for granted: real estate agents, granite workers and inventors of the perfect paragraphs.

  1. #1 by Andy on May 29, 2012 - 7:50 pm

    To Go-Bots and the 101st.

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