The first time I climbed the west side steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington my ears (and other body parts) were close to freezing. Instead of taking a bus or streetcar from 16th Street, I chose to walk the entire length of Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol on my own. I was young and stupid, and the Capitol didn't appear to be all that far away. Big mistake.
I thawed out as I explored the various wings of the Capitol. It was January 1948. I had just started work as a fingerprint clerk for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. My job in the Identification Division was to search the voluminous files for the prints of communists and other enemies.
I could not have been happier. I had thus far lived in a series of obscure Pennsylvania hamlets. Suddenly I was defending my country by working in the bright lights of the most important city of the world. I vowed never to leave.
It was not to be. Within six months I had become a draft dodger.
The Russians had blockaded Berlin. The Allied airlift had begun. Suddenly I (and many of my FBI buddies) envisioned being drafted into the U.S. Army and perhaps dying in a forgotten foxhole somewhere in Poland.
So we took action. Some of my draft-bait friends escaped to Canada. Others of us were too crafty. Our solution: we joined the U.S. Navy. For three years. Then the North Koreans marched. Make that four years.
My tour as a destroyer radioman led to stops around the world, including a frigid 1951-52 winter in the waters of the Korean war zone. Fate's final gift to me: a college education, courtesy of the newly enacted Korean GI Bill.
Fast-forward to Jan. 6, 2021. For the first time in 73 years my attention was fully centered on the U.S. Capitol building. And it was under attack by a misbegotten mob.
How could this have happened? Will similar assaults and betrayals happen again? I don't know. Nor do you. But as I watched last week's inauguration ceremonies, a flood of heroic names filled my mind. The names belonged to men and women who had helped our nation triumph — or at least survive — during my own lifetime.
The struggles they faced included the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, the threat of Communism, racism, Vietnam, atomic energy, global warming and now COVID-19. Feel free to add a few choices of your own.
Somehow we pulled through. Will we continue to do so? Who knows? Stay tuned. The future lies ahead. Even as I write these words, our nation's remarkable Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, has announced her hope and intent to run for president in 2036. Is this a good omen? I want to think so.
For openers, let's sleep easier tonight. We still have many hills to climb.