When I could actually catch my breath during Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," I wept.
Not just for those giant heroes, disguised as young American boys, who climbed out of boats off Omaha Beach and embarked on their journey into the ages. And not only for mothers who saw their sons disappear into Gold Stars placed in front-porch windows.
I also shed angry tears for we millions of "Private Ryans" whom they delivered from tyranny. In too many ways, we have yet to fulfill the gift of salvation with which they blessed us.
In the film's metaphor of life's journey, eight soldiers set out behind enemy lines to retrieve one boy, the sole survivor of four sons given over to God and nation. "Can you explain," one searcher asks, "why eight of us should risk our necks for one guy?"
The two-hour meditation on the value of sacrifice that follows establishes the essential nature of giving to a full and meaningful life. As it turns out, before any of us can rest assured, reach shore or return home, we must contribute, sacrifice and perhaps perish so that others might live.
A startling simple affirmation of humanity, this. And one writ large in the story of our parents and grandparents, and their willing acceptance of families torn asunder for a nation strong together.
Only one soldier survives the successful search for Ryan. Having secured the boy's safety, the platoon captain lays dying. Drawing Ryan near, he whispers, "Earn this."
Faceless then and forgotten now, if these fallen boys of World War II could be with us, would they say that we have earned their gift?
Sitting in the darkened theater, my mind's eye suddenly brought them among us. Freshly scrubbed and with youthful gait, they walk through my imagination, taking in an America struggling to restore a sense of shared community.
The boys seem pleased and proud of how we have made our nation a less hazardous and more civilized place in which to live. But what do they make of our social and economic landscape, where plenty and need sit as side by side as Orchard Park and Buffalo's lower West Side?
To fellows who turned the Great Depression and World War II into uniting experiences, I try to explain how we permit affluence and peace to separate us. I describe how the G.I. Bill, automobile mobility, racist lending policies and a booming economy combined to create two Americas: one affluent, majority and suburban; the other impoverished, minority and urban.
They say not a word. But heads hung low, staring at thick boots, they silently seem to ask if this is what they fought for. Pressing now, I note that free markets are harsh, some are left behind, and besides, isolated suburbia reflects a majority of peoples' desires. Their young faces go blank, until one pipes up, "Oh yeah? A majority of us wanted to go home after one day out."
Finally, they want to know what's on our minds as the new century nears. Over what do we argue, and of what do we dream? Not without difficulty, I tell them of failed bridges and intern's dresses, of powerballs and weakened workers, of local pettiness and a national void. In the youngest of the lot -- the one with the brightest face -- sadness appears.
As they turn to leave, I ask if any of them knew the Niland brothers of Tonawanda. Over his shoulder and with a warm smile, one answers, "Those guys are the best." With that they are gone.
Sacrificing individual interest for a collective good seems an idea slipping away with each passing obituary of a World War II veteran. But as sure as we must preserve their memory, we must sustain the values and ideals for which they fought.
In another century, in the face of horror of another war, Abraham Lincoln paid tribute to the "last full measure of devotion" bestowed by fallen soldiers on a grateful nation. A devotion that embraces both America and its underlying idea of shared past and interwoven future. That devotion survived the Civil War, informed the heroics of Normandy and must drive our generation's search for our own Private Ryans.
When Spielberg's eight Rangers finally find their boy, he and a handful of frightened Americans prepare to hold off what they know will be an overwhelming enemy attack. Young Ryan is told that he is his family's only surviving son of war, and to spare his mother further grief, his country wants him home. He refuses, asking only that they "tell my mother I'm staying here with the only brothers I have left."
As we prepare to create the world's first true multicultural society, grateful for what we have been given, tempered by the knowledge of what finally awaits us, and inspired by those who have gone before, we must now express the same solidarity as young Private Ryan.
KEVIN P. GAUGHAN, a Hamburg attorney, founded the Chautauqua Conference on Regionalism. His Regional Conversation, a program for interchurch visits and discussions throughout Western New York, will begin this fall.
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