Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Most Important Holiday Of The Year

TigerBlog woke up this morning like he does every other morning: free.

It's certainly not through his own doing, and it's certainly something he takes for granted. TigerBlog is free to do what he wants. Go to work. Not go to work. Work here forever. Quit today. Live here. Pick up and move 3,000 miles away. Whatever he wants.

Why? Because that's how it works in America, and it works that way because of the sacrifice that hundreds of thousands of American soldiers have made in various wars during the last 233 years.

Today is Veterans' Day, obviously. For those who weren't paying attention in school, Veterans' Day is usually Nov. 11 (it can be moved if it falls on the weekend) in honor of the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I on Nov. 11, 1918.

TigerBlog can't imagine the horror of fighting in a war, and he saves his greatest respect for those who have. His uncle Herbie fought in Europe and the Pacific in World War II. His uncle Larry fought in Korea and never spoke a word about his experiences there until the day more than 50 years later when he died. FatherBlog was in the Army as well, though it was during the point between the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Princeton's connection to the military is long and heroic, befitting a school whose unofficial motto is "In the Nation's Service." Visitors to the ground floor rotunda of Nassau Hall are greeted by a memorial to Princeton's war dead.

Princeton lost 355 students in World War II, which exceeded the total number lost in every previous war combined (319 of whom had been killed in World War I). During the war, nearly 80% of Princeton students left campus to enlist in the military, and, according to Mudd Library, the University was able to remain viable only by becoming a training school for the Army and Navy.

Princeton athletics were greatly affected by the two World Wars. The 1917 Princeton football season consisted of two games, against teams from nearby military bases, and the same was true of the three-game 1918 season. Hockey was suspended for the 1917-18 season and only two games were played the following year.

There would be no hockey from 1943 until the 1945-46 season. Football would play seven games in 1943 and 1945 and three in 1944. Lacrosse would play a total of 17 games between 1942 and 1945.

TigerBlog has no idea how many Princeton athletes are among the school's war dead, but he does know the legendary stories of two former Tiger athletes. Moe Berg, a catcher on the baseball team who went on to have a long career in the Major Leagues, was a spy during World War II who came close to having to assassinate the head of Germany's nuclear program and who made maps of Tokyo during baseball barnstorming trips that were later used for air raids.

The other is Hobey Baker, whom TigerBlog considers along with Dick Kazmaier and Bill Bradley to be the one of the three greatest athletes in Princeton history. Baker's story is also famous: After graduating in 1914 as one of the greatest hockey and football players of all-time and finding life without athletics to be somewhat tedious (he was a banker who played club hockey before there was a professional league for either of his sports), he found a replacement thrill when he learned to fly. He flew against the Germans in World War I, and he died while taking a plane for a test flight six weeks after the Armistice. Legend has it that rather than face a life without sports or war, he crashed his plane on purpose.

Today, as America continues to fight overseas, Princeton and Princeton athletes continue to be represented, and TigerBlog apologizes to those he's missed. Former basketball player Pete Hegseth earned a bronze star while serving in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division, and he has become a nationally known commentator on the American military.

TigerBlog read a story in the Alumni Weekly about a Princeton alum who had been wounded in Iraq and recognized the name, Alex Wilson, from the football roster. Nate Rawlings was a wrestler who has served in the current conflict as well.

When TigerBlog was in Europe with the men's lacrosse team in June 2008, pretty much every player was reading "Lone Survivor," a story by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell about his experiences in Afghanistan. TigerBlog mandated that TigerBlog Jr. read the book, to see what real dedication and commitment are all about.

Read that book. Watch "Saving Private Ryan" or "Band of Brothers" or "The Last Days of World War II."

Mostly, take a minute to think about what the significance of today is. Veterans' Day lacks the family feel of Thanksgiving and Christmas. It doesn't conjure up the start of summer like Memorial Day or make you think of a barbecue in the backyard and watching fireworks like the Fourth of July.

Mostly, it's just another day for many people, a day to go about business as usual. Except that we do it in a country that is free, and because today salutes those who made it that way and continue to make it that way, it's nothing short of the most important day of the year.


Anonymous said...

This is your best entry, among many. I really appreciate that you would center your thoughts on the significance of this day and on our service members. And it was really well done.

Feldberg said...


A small correction -- Moe Berg shot film of Tokyo, as opposed to making maps of the city.

Michael Feldberg

Princeton OAC said...

Correct. Moe Berg shot film, and those films were converted to maps that were used by bombers in World War II.