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Legacy and Lore

by Albin Johnson

It seems as if all the news lately has been about "legacies"! President Reagan's death, George Bush's reelection, Kerry's past and Bill Clinton's confessions. I can't resist putting my spin on how I rate one over the other.

A LEGACY is something like an old suitcase you carry through life, constantly packing, repacking and unpacking those things you did during your waking life. When it is closed and locked for the last time, curiosity challenges others to pry it open and sort through the contents much like all those forgotten friends, distant in-laws and long lost second cousins who you never knew but show up at your funeral.

For most of us who live long enough to have a distant past, the dusty contents of our boxes are composed mostly of faded memories of our youth including yellowing newspapers and funny pictures that highlighted our birth, marriage, family and retirement that could become fodder for our obituary.

History books list October 29, 1929 as "Black Tuesday. This was when the stock market crashed and signaled the start of the Great Depression. My high school classmates of 1948, along with Charles Lindberg's kidnapped and murdered son were all conceived during this historical period. I had two older sisters so I can be fairly certain my mom and dad wanted a son and sure enough mom delivered me and I now had my own new "suitcase". The next several years they filled it with lots of photographs, some clippings, some awards, valentines, notes, letters and "just plain things"! I wasn't thinking much about my legacy.

Many years later in 1980. I was asked to "say a few words" at the funeral of a man I had shared an office and worked with for 25 years. I lay awake at night searching for the appropriate words to eulogize him. My problem was I never really knew anything about his life. I was relieved and elated at the funeral because the minister was especially long winded and left no time for my scanty tribute.

President Reagan's death was really a blessing and long awaited. There had been plenty of time to research, argue and write an obituary surrounding his healthy life. It would be hard to believe that during his early onset of Alzheimer's that he didn't plan for his historical legacy which included acting, state politics, and the presidency. No doubt his suitcase had grown into several large trunks with instructions concerning which to open first!

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All past presidents have left volumes of memorabilia that flatter and paint pictures of overcoming adversity and completing great deeds. Virtually every president has endowed personal libraries with their life's history. Reagan's library will surely rival those of recent presidents such as Roosevelt, Truman, Nixon, Carter and Ford.

Money is most certainly necessary to elect a president and operate a presidential library, but this paragraph is about our "monetary system". The death of a president will bring forth requests to mint a new coin or print a new dollar commerating their service. Whose face should appear on our money? Honest Abe is relegated to the lowly copper penny, Ike once graced the silver dollar, Roosevelt the dime. Our paper currency has Geo. Washington on the dollar bill while Woodrow Wilson basks in rarified glory by appearing on the $100,000 bill. (Have you ever seen one?)

The epitome of presidential exposure must be Mount Rushmore. The mountain's carved faces display, front-runner, Geo. Washington with Thomas Jefferson slightly behind. Teddy Roosevelt appears sandwiched between Jefferson and Lincoln. I could imagine that if he had lived long enough to view it he might have said something more explicit than "Bully". Lincoln's bust is certainly deserving. He will forever be associated with the slavery issue and keeping our nation "undivided". Unfortunately, his suitcase contains the names of over 600,000 service men's deaths.

More recent fates of president's legacies include Woodrow Wilson, who despite his desire to remain neutral, in 1917 arranged for boatloads of American doughboys to be sent overseas to save Europe from the Huns. 117 thousand of our young men paid an extreme price but Europe survived to fight another day! The US then survived a great depression using government intervention and we began to regain our strength under President Franklin Roosevelt. It was not long until his bubble broke on December 7, 1941. The Japanese probably didn't realize, but they cemented FDRs place as a truly great president, unless you are bothered by the loss of 407,000 young lives that proved to the world that a nave Japanese emperor, a pompous Italian premier, and a megalomaniac named Hitler couldn't unseat a partially paralyzed US president.

I could consider the possibility that later Presidents may have studied US history and might see value in exploiting minor "situations" using a preemptive strike that would be successful and thus add a little positive material to their legacy. I certainly hope not, but there have been some questionable forays into foreign territory. The United States soon realized that a new power was infiltrating the world. The rise of Communism! The mere word struck fear in our lives and politicians began the purging of any "Reds or Pinkos" from our society. It became evident that the "domino theory" of an advancing "Red Tide" meant stopping it in their tracks.

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With little public resistance the US entered a war against North Korea in 1950. There was still plenty of patriotic enthusiasm in that every male in both my graduating class and my wife's class spent time in the service. Unfortunately the police action had little gain for the loss of 33,650 young men! Few lessons learned, but more fodder for the "suitcases". It wasn't long before new politicians saw another opportunity to save the world from communism. Vietnam! What the French couldn't accomplish was reason for us to show the world we were serious about Russian advancement. We forgot that the Chinese had their own brand of aggression. Our intervention in Vietnam probably stoked more passions and produced more division among the American public than any other period since the War between the States. Few wanted to remember this unwinable war except the families of over 58,000 young dead servicemen. Yet it has probably produced more political lore and legacy than any preceding time. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations would soon need to build bomb shelters to house all their information.

I have frequently visited the Nixon Library as it is close to my home. He had a connection with the Quaker Church so he and his wife are buried near the Library that contains a wide variety of letters, tapes and memorabilia. People can actually research some of his more famous tapes and draw their own conclusions about a troubled presidency.

Time for some trivia starting with press worthy remembrances; the White House animals! Do you recognize any of these pet names? Fa La, Checkers, Him & Her, Socks, Barney, Spot, King Tut, Laddie Boy, Millie, Rex, Grits, Little Beagle, Feller, Liberty, any of Teddy's menagerie, and lastly, Wilson's White House lawn full of sheep. A few more items probably found in suitcases under buzz words: walk softly a big stick, remember the Maine, 5 cent cigars, stove pipe hat, fireside chat, peanut farmer, jelly bellies, Ike jacket, slick Willie and slick Dick, Teflon, buck stopper, WMDs, and Watergate. Remember, this is all LEGACY stuff!

Some things just won't fit into a storage container. They will always remain accessible to the public. These are the Capitol structures. Our first president's simple obelisk will ever remain the tallest monument in DC. There is a larger than life size bronze statue of Abe Lincoln that overlooks almost all the area. Jefferson's Rotunda is a fitting architectural delight. Unfortunately his legacy contains a few negative reports of his faith, use of slaves, and black progeny.

One of the newest tributes is Franklin Roosevelt's outdoor diorama that is expansive with a maze of corners filled with engravings on marble, and bronze sculptures depicting various times in his lengthy term in office. Much of his legacy is within touch.

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A bus ride away is the Arlington Cemetery where President John F. Kennedy is buried. His site is notably simple, the opposite of his life! It is composed of a somewhat large round area of flat cobblestones with a simple center hole from which an eternal flame is burning. Simple head stones are for names. It holds your interest for a moment and then you notice it is set in a position that looks out upon 612 acres of grassy lawns that hold small crosses and stone monuments covering the bodies of over 250,000 service personnel and their families. A sobering and reverent sight!

Thanks for reading through this tribute to the dead. There are living tributes also. In January of 2001, I received an e-mail from an old friend and High School team-mate telling me about his younger brother's computer web site called "Minonktalk". I for one could not begin to envision what has happened since. Thanks Dave!! Your Legacy is quite well intact. Not only the web site, but a pavilion, remodeled building, parks, trees watch dogging and bird dogging important grievances and complaints of citizens and a friendliness toward others plus a real desire to make Minonk a proud place to live. Wow!!!