Thursday, August 7, 2008


Hello friends:

One day I spotted a note in the local newspaper asking Veterans to share stories with classes at the local high school on Veteran's Day. I decided to volunteer and went to the school at the appointed time on that November day a number of years ago. I was one of about 50 veterans from various wars, some in uniforms with all their medals pinned to their jackets or shirts, some in ragged jeans, some, like me, in casual attire. We were each assigned to a class and a student escorted us to our appointed classroom.

Sgt. George F. Drake, 326th CRC, Korea, Summer of 1953.

In the room I was introduced as a Korean War Veteran. I was in front of the class sitting cross legged on the top of the teacher's desk.

'Well, you have a live one." I said. "What do you want?"
"Tell us war stories." called out one kid.
"I don't tell war stories." I responded. "War is not entertainment."
"Did you enlist or were you drafted?" asked another.
"I enlisted."
"Because I had a sense of duty to my country and wanted to help in the fight to protect our democracy. This is a Senior Civics class is it not? Will one of you please define 'democracy'?"
No one ventured to do so.

"OK," I said, "Let us take a different approach. Next week I will be hosting a delegation of visitors from Latin America including the Minister of Education from Panama, a newspaper editor from Costa Rica and a State Senator from Guatemala. They will be in Bellingham for three days to learn a bit about democracy in a small town in America. What should I do with them?" One student suggested that I could take them to the movies.

"Last year I saw the movie 'Rambo' in Chungking, China." I said. "Would you suggest that the Chinese learned anything about American democracy by seeing that film?" Silence.
"You could have a beer bust" suggested one of the boys.

"This is almost the anniversary of 'Krystallnacht' which was in November of 1938. I am sure that began with a beer bust, or ended with one. No, having a beer party is not a symbol of a democratic society."

I pointed to a boy in the back of the room and asked him what I should do with my visitors to show them democracy in Bellingham. The teacher intervened and said "Juan just arrived from Spain as an exchange student and speaks little English. It would be better to call on someone else. I responded, "En la semana entrante voy a tener un grupo de visitantes de America Latina. Que hago yo con ellos para muestrar a ellos la vida democratica en Bellingham?" Immediately he responded, "Se puede llevar los a un reunion del ayuntamiento." [You could take them to a meeting of the city council.]

A girl in the front row asked if I would translate for her what he said and I responded "No. Too many people think that the only way to defend or to fight for your country is to shoot someone. You might begin by learning another language. Visit other countries. Sit on a rock in a slum and chat with the residents. Find out what their dreams are and how they feel about Americans. Learn something about their culture, their social systems and their values. In learning about them you will also learn more about yourselves. You might even learn what it is to be an American."

We spent the rest of the period discussing how America treats her veterans. Not a happy time was had by all.

After resigning from the United States Information Agency I volunteered to be a local/regional host for the USIA International Visitor Program which brought influential visitors from countries all over the world for a 30 day visit to the US to 'see democracy in action' and to get to know the American way of life and culture first hand. I served in that role as a volunteer for over 30 years and hosted more than 100 delegations from nations all over the globe. One visitor was Amalia Garcia, currently governor of the state of Zacatecas but at that time she was a Senator in the Mexican Congress and the Vice President (later to become President) of the PRD, the left leaning political party of Mexico. I had one of our Washington State Senators tell her about the laws and ordinances that we had delineating how one files for public office, the paperwork one had to fill out about one's wealth, property, etc., public disclosure of money donated to one's campaign war chest, who it was from and how it was spent, etc, etc, etc. I took her to meetings of supporters of the Republican candidate for office and a neighborhood gathering for a Democrat candidate. She went door-belling with one of our women candidates for public office. On election day she went to the polls with me, entered the booth with me, watched me punch the ballot card and watched as I dropped it in the ballot box. She then went with that box in the car to the courthouse where she followed the box to the room where the lock was opened, where each ballot was checked for 'chads', where there were observers from both parties. She watched as the cards were put into the counting machine and then went outside to the public area and watched the results being posted on the bulletin board. When the results were all in we went to several parties of the winners of the various contests.

She spent 30 days touring the US but when she was debriefed by staff in the US Embassy on her return to Mexico City all she wanted to talk about was her four days in Bellingham! The following year when my wife and I were in Mexico City we called her Senate office and asked if we could have lunch together. She asked us to meet her at a certain restaurant and on arrival we found that joining us were about ten members of the Mexican Congress, all members of the PRD political party and also the Public Affairs Officer of the U.S. Embassy who had arranged her trip to the US. At the end of the delightful lunch she said that since we had shown her anything she wanted to see in Bellingham she wanted to know what we would like to see in Mexico City. I responded that I wanted to see one of the poorest barrios of the city. I said I wanted to see where the people who picked through garbage in the city garbage dumps lived. "That's easy," she replied. "Those people are all members of our party." Turning to one of the delegates at the table she asked him to show us some of the poor sectors of his district later that day. That visit is a story for another day.


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