My son turned 18 a few days ago, and of course he is far too busy playing computer games and driving the Jeep we got him for his birthday to listen to me and my preachments, but let’s just pretend that he’s listening. If he were, this is what I’d say.
How the time flies. How easily I can recall taking you home from the hospital and telling your mother, my wife, all of my hopes and plans for you. It did not dawn on me just how little my plans had to do with your plans, but in the hope that maybe that will change with age, here I go again.
I could tell you to get enough sleep, to eat properly, to study hard, to not drink a lot of caffeine, but I have already told you those a million times already, so I’ll just tell you three things about your world.
First, your grandfather on my side, the redoubtable Herbert Stein, was not born comfortable the way you were. He had to work his way through college washing dishes at a fraternity at Williams College that did not admit Jews. He did it without complaint and when I asked him many years later if he was angry about the slight, he said, “I didn’t have the luxury of feeling angry. I was just happy to be able to work my way through a great college in the great depression.” That is good sense and gratitude in action, and I hope you will learn from it. My father was later an avid supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr., and that’s part of his legacy as well — maybe from washing dishes.
Second, your grandfather on Mom’s side, Colonel Dale Denman of Arkansas, was a major war hero in World War II and in Vietnam. I once asked him what it was like before he went into combat. He answered, “I prayed I would not be a coward.” His prayers were answered. He fought the SS hand to hand and won the battle and won a Silver Star. This is an example of heroism that makes us all in his family both small and large. I hope you are never in combat but I hope you will always remember his prayer and his heroism.
Third, try to think some day of the number of men and women who died and lost limbs and sanity so you could be a free man. From Saratoga to Iwo Jima to Cho-Sin and now in Mosul and Ar-Ramadi, think of all those who gave up their lives so you could be a free man, because now you are free, and you are a man. They died for you and me, and we have to think every single day what we did to be worth dying for. Did we comfort the lonely? Did we visit the sick? Did we lift up the downtrodden or did we just live for our own selfish luxury? There are so many things to do and I hope that some day soon you will start coming with me to the VA hospital to visit the patients.
I don’t expect you to learn all of this right away. It takes years, but there is a time to start and the time is now. Enjoy yourself, but you, like all of us, have a debt to repay to those who went before and who are fighting now.
God bless you, Tommy, and Happy Birthday.