The following is a speech given by war veteran, history teacher, and future Winona State professor Dr. Marvin A. Palecek on Veterans Day 1957 at the Luck Wisconsin High School Junior-Senior Banquet, where Garfield Rowe was principal:
Mr. Rowe, members of the School Board, fellow teachers, friends, juniors, and especially tonight’s guests of honor, the senior class:
In a few weeks, you optimistic seniors are expecting to spend your last days in good old Luck High School. Mr. Rowe and your faculty will still write recommendations for some of you, but they will have done most of what they can do to help you in developing your future.
The School Board will have provided its last budget for you, and, with present inflation, you will have been unique in one way (at least): you are the most expensive senior class we’ve ever had.
Then, in three more weeks, whether you wish or not, the juniors of tonight will push you out and take your places.
To the rest of us, this is a junior-senior banquet. To you, it is THE junior-senior banquet. Most of you will simultaneously leave both the protective walls of Luck High and your own homes, either for college or to develop your own future.
From time to time you will now experience knocks and discouragements such as you have never known before. Your entire future will sometimes depend upon a tremendous ability to bounce back. Perhaps more than most of the adults here tonight have seen the wreckage of human beings who lost their ability to bounce back.
Some years ago the rain was falling steadily in the Anzio Beachhead of Italy, just as it had been falling almost day and night for nearly four long months. Jerry’s Front Calling and Berlin Sally were hammering away at our morale over our tiny homemade radio sets, just as they had been since we had arrived.
A few nights before, they had told us our own password and there had been a mad scramble to hold up all patrols until we could get a new password established. Tonight, they promised us a special surprise. Our high brass was also planning its own special surprise for the German big guns. Promptly at nine o’clock and continuing for one hour, all our own artillery would cease-fire. We would triangulate German gun flashes by counting the seconds it took for the sound of the report to follow the flashes and lining their exact direction from two different points of our line.
Promptly at nine, our guns stopped firing. Promptly at nine, Heinie also stopped. For the first time in four months, a deathly silence reigned in Anzio. Moments seemed like hours.
Suddenly, an American soldier leaped from the shadow of the ditch and, firing wildly, charged the German lines singlehanded. Another man had lost his ability to bounce back.
For the next few days there was a sharp increase in the number of Americans shooting themselves in their hands and feet in order to escape it all. Men were losing their ability to bounce back.
It was decided to pull the entire division out for a breather. The night before we went back from the line another soldier received a letter we would gladly have not. His fiancé was tired of waiting and was marrying another man.
The next night as we whispered instructions to the new division talking over our muddy foxholes, no one noticed the crushed soldier lift his rifle off his soldier and put it under his own chin until he puled the trigger. Another American boy had lost his ability to bounce back.
A couple of weeks later, after we had paid the horrible price required by the German machine guns, we broke out of Anzio and began moving again. Success brought a sharp let-up in the type of tragedy I described.
The end of the war brought a merciful pause, but four years later I was witness to another junk-heap of human beings, which is even tonight piling up in every one of our large cities. Each of these cities has its so-called “skid row” in the heart of the slums, where men who have skidded beyond all hope of regaining their own self-respect collect.
The skid row of Minneapolis is Washington Avenue. As one of the older students of a Christian college, I was a member, for a year, of teams that went to Washington Avenue to try and drag men from the depths of despondency and despair.
While younger teams sang and preached in the missions and in the Salvation Army to the fellows lured in by a cup of coffee and a hamburger, we worked the streets and gutters. I saw the inside of so-called “flop houses” with their long rows of cots partly separated by cold steel partitions that started a couple feet off the floor, extended halfway to the ceiling, and had no doors.
In the dead of winter there are no blankets on the cots or heat in the buildings. They offer only a dry roof. If the fellow happens to have it, he contributes 50 cents a night.
It is a difficult job to pull such men out of the mire of despondency and despair. To do so one must restore a combined faith in three things: faith in themselves, faith in their God, and faith in their fellow man or our democratic principles.
If you young people can retain your ability to bounce back from knocks and discouragements you will never see the inside of a “skid row.” To bounce back, you, too, will need faith in three things: yourselves, God, and the future of your country.
When having faith in yourselves, I do not mean you should be arrogant, cocky, or egotistical. I saw two such top sergeants pile up in the mental wreckage of war. One stole a quart of the captain’s whiskey in order to build up enough courage to smash his foot with an axe and get sent home.
Faith in yourself is to have a strong measure of self-respect and self-reliance. But some of you who know that you could go on through college are secretly planning to bury your heads and your talents in the sand because you fear the unknown and the struggle involved. Then you’ll spend the rest of your lives regretting not having done something more worthwhile.
The greatest resource of America today is not its atomic energy, not its hydrogen and cobalt bombs, not its guided missiles, not its jet-propelled planes and not its beautiful automobiles. The greatest resource of America today is you.
Yet, over one half of the top 10 percent of high school seniors do not go on to college.
I do not mean that education alone is the magic answer. There are doctors, lawyers and ministers in the human scrap heap of skid row.
I shall never forget the time I quoted a fairly difficult Bible verse to a half-drunk character, and he finished the entire chapter for me.
There is only one way to stay young in our racing times, and that is to keep your minds young and alert.
Your great-great-grandfathers saw very little change from birth to death. Their sons and grandsons followed the same furrow or worked in the same store, whereas today you dare not stand still. You either advance mentally, or deteriorate rapidly.
In only four or five years from the time you graduate you can be an old-fashioned “has-been,” no matter how young you may be physically. Some of you may be too anxious to rush out to get a double M.A. or double P.A. degree and start warming bottles.
You over-anxious girls will find no better p[lace to shop for that all-important future partner than college campus; nor does marriage necessarily end educational opportunities. There are many married couples in modern colleges.
Whatever your choice for the future, make it something you can justify to yourself as worthwhile for more than just dollars and cents. Notice the number of ex-G.I.s who have gone into high school teaching after witnessing how cheap life can be in the wreckage of wars.
The old adage “honesty always pays” is not always true economically. There are some bank robbers who have never been caught. Fifteen thousand cars stolen in the United States last year have not been recovered. But if you are to retain your self-respect and self-reliance you must above all be able to live with your own conscious.
Next, if you are to bounce back, you need a faith in God — a faith that will hold you up when men turn against you and will bear you above the petty, heated quarrels of pseudo scientists and pseudo ministers.
Alexander Pope once said, “A little learning is a dang’rous thing; drink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring.”
Ministers who read only the English translation of the Hebrew in which the Old Testament was written insist that everything was created in seven 24-hour days. The Hebrew language called it seven periods of time and explained nothing about the methods of creation. The fake scientists reads the English account and scoffs at God, failing to note that science is proclaiming that the human race is much younger than other animal life. The Hebrew account bears this out, again with no details.
The egotistical man supplies his own details in order to pull his infinite God down to a finite level and cast Him aside as inferior to himself.
Many great scientists believe in God. Astronomers do not tend to atheism. They are over-awed by the perfection and timing of a universe that puts our best clocks to shame.
Mariners guide ships by the stars. Eclipses of the moon can be foretold for hundreds of years in advance. The perfect balance of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere will insure the human lungs continue to function as part of a perfect circulatory system in a body that is itself a series of marvelous perfections.
True scientists know that perfect does not foster imperfection — that where there is effect there must be a cause — that order does not develop naturally out of chaos.
Most of you at some time or other have come home tired and left your things in chaotic disorder. Later, you returned to find either the same chaos, or to discover that the scientific evolutionary process that had straightened out the whole mess was spelled, “M.O.T.H.E.R.”
Yes, he who worships only himself has nothing left to fall back on if that faith is destroyed.
For who knows when his joys of tomorrow
May be anointed today,
And then be embalmed deep in sorrow
In the musty halls of yesterday?
Finally, if you are to have the power to bounce back, you will need faith in the future of our democracy. The famous Hungarian refugee Dr. Kovacs once likened our democracy to a giant redwood tree.
The redwood tree does not attain its full majestic growth as king of the forests until it is 1,000 years old. At 200 it is still a mere sapling.
Our democracy is less than 180 years old. But already we are competitors in developing the great increase of knowledge foretold by the prophets.
Almost 3,000 years ago, in a day that knew only goat trails, donkeys and camels, the Bible prophet Nahum predicted our chariots would run like lightening, their eyes like flaming torches (I believe he was thinking of the fellow who won’t dim his brights) and he added that they should jostle the broadways.
You are already inheriting jet planes that can travel 1,500 mph, a speed that can take you from here to London, Paris, and Berlin in about three hours.
Our Army and Navy have developed 200-pound single-passenger helicopters, and have plans for cargo and passenger models of only two or three times that weight. Suppose these could be mass-produced for only a fraction of the cost and labor supply that automobiles require. Would we be willing to sacrifice, temporarily, the welfare of half our people to get ahead? Would our competitors?
Last week, Russia found herself unable to meet payments on the huge loans she had borrowed from her people. With a stroke of a pen, Kruschev cancelled the entire Russian national debt to get his country out of her predicament. Other nations have not yet adopted our concern for the welfare of the individual.
Our infant democracy has made mistakes. Some countries still judge us by our imperialistic wars in the 1800s with Mexico and Spain in order to gain more territory. The Gaza Strip and Jordan Arabs living today out of the United Nations’ soup kitchens will have long memories. They will not soon forget Britain and America promoted the plan to move them out of Palestine without a vote first, when they numbered 90 percent of the population.
The future respect for America as a leader among nations depends upon our ability to overcome the impression left by our mistakes.
I like to think that the sapling of democracy will flourish and grow into the majestic king of the forest nations. In your hands is the next stage of that growth.
Your faith in yourselves, your God, and your country will determine what you do with your future. Yours is both a breath-taking challenge and a grave responsibility.
In your hands is the power of the atom to run cars of tomorrow 20 years on batteries the size of flashlight cells, or to destroy cities. In your hands is the mighty potential of cobalt to destroy the dreaded cancer, or to ruin nations.
Will you use this tremendous power to promote world peace, or allow it to blow the world to pieces?