Tag Archives: character

Another Old Joe Fades Away.

World War II ended 74 years ago. If a kid turned 18 and enlisted at the very end of the war, they would be 92 years old today. Even if they lied about their age and were really sixteen, which was not that uncommon at the time, they’d be 90 years old now. Most World War II vets are older. A soldier who turned 18 and enlisted at the beginning of the World War II in 1941 would be 96 this year. Actuarial science always comes to the same ultimate conclusion. There are very few World War II vets left.

This basic math tells us that the youngest a World War II veteran could realistically be is 90 years old, and that’s stretching it. According to the US Veteran’s Administration, less than 2% of the 16,000,000 original World War 2 vets are still alive. They are passing away at an average rate of 372 every single day. Within a decade, maybe a little longer, there will be none left. None.

One of those 16,000,000 originals was my great uncle Joe. He served in Italy and also fought in the Battle of the Bulge. An artillery guy. He never said a lot about his time in World War II. All I ever got out of him was that his unit was attacked by Stuka dive bombers and he lost most of his hearing due to being in artillery.

world war iiUncle Joe had a quiet dignity about him. I never saw him wear army veteran hats or place stickers on his car proclaiming his service –not that there’s anything wrong with that– it just wasn’t his style. He never talked about how he was the reason why the United States is still the land of Liberty. He never talked about the violence and death of war that he personally witnessed. He never talked of the grateful faces that cheered the American soldiers as they went town to town across Europe driving out the Nazis and restoring peace to the world.

Uncle Joe surely must have understood the history-altering significance of what he did. In his own way, with very few words, the World War II freedom fighter and real-life hero let his character do the talking. I’ve met several World War II vets and this seems to be a common trait among them.

They don’t say much about their service, at least not to those who did not share the experience. I think that is part of the character of the generation. Service to country was something you did out of a sense of duty. It wasn’t about calling attention to oneself. An important job needed to be done, so they stepped up and did it. It wasn’t any more complicated than that.

After World War II uncle Joe did what most of his peers did: Got a solid job, married, had children. He lived a completely respectable life. It was the same kind of comfortable middle class life millions of Americans enjoy…because of people like him.

We go to productive jobs, take the kids to school, practice a religion, speak for and against various causes, read any books we choose, own firearms, vote, travel freely, have access to a legitimate legal system, and run our mouths on the internet…none of this would happen but for uncle Joe’s selfless service.

But uncle Joe would never tell you that. He was much too modest even as there was nothing even remotely modest about his contribution to the United States. I don’t know if World War II gave soldiers character or brought out the character they already had. Does it matter? I’d like to think that if I had been alive back then I would step up and defend my country too. I’ll never know for sure. And thanks to uncle Joe, I’ll likely never be put to the test.

When Japan & Germany provoked the USA into World War II, they did so on the theory that Americans were hedonistic pleasure seekers with no mettle for a long war. Guys like uncle Joe showed them how incredibly flawed that theory was.

Uncle Joe recently died in Chicago after a lengthy illness. His memorial service will be next week. Adding to the sad but not exactly unexpected news is that between now and next week, many more World War II vets just like him will pass away too.

It’s too late to thank most World War II vets for their selfless service, but like uncle Joe they probably would not want to be called out anyway. We can truly honor all the uncle Joes of World War II by living in freedom with the kind of spirit that only Americans have. We need only to look to them as an example.

michael spark

High School Swimmer Michael Spark Places First In Character.

By Chris Warren.

A favorite recurring topics here at Twenty First Summer is young people displaying an amazing understanding of personal honor, maturity, and respect for others that reaches decades beyond the few years they’ve been around. I’m blessed to have people like this in my own life and it makes my heart cheer to be reminded that it’s not just me who is the lucky one. High school swimmer Michael Spark is that reminder.

Michael Spark and Rich Fortels are high school athletes on competing swim teams. In a major conference meet, Spark came in second to Fortels, but when Fortels was disqualified because he did not turn his swimmer’s cap inside out to hide a club logo (per high school sports rules), the first place win was given to Michael Spark. Fortels’ coach appealed the referee’s call, and lost.

You heard that right. Rich Fortels, who broke a 14 year old record and finished the race more than two seconds faster than Micheal Spark, was kicked out over a swim cap, or more specifically, the logo on a swim cap!

“He beat me fair and square. He beat me because he trained harder than me.”

Spark could have kept his award and spent the rest of his life telling everyone he was a champion swimmer in high school. And technically, according to the rules, he would have been correct in that belief.

Michael Spark is a sportsman, not a lawyer. He had enough respect for himself and his competitor to see that winning because of a technicality was nothing to be proud of, so he later personally gave his gold medal to Fortels and congratulated him on his win.

Rules may be rules, but a rule is not automatically fair just because it is a rule. Michael Spark knew a printed logo on a swim cap gave Fortels no competitive advantage. He knew Fortels was the better swimmer, and even admitted so. “He beat me fair and square. He beat me because he trained harder than me,” Spark stated, “He out swam me. He beat me on that day and that race.”


Everyone who was at the pool that day knew who the better swimmer was. The referee, coaches, and even the governing body that ultimately decided against Fortels’ appeal knew who the better swimmer was. And most importantly, Michael Spark, the kid who had the most to gain and lose by this entire affair, knew who the better swimmer was. And it wasn’t him.

Michael Spark’s remarkable act of sportsmanship and goodwill does not change the official records. He is still the recorded meet winner. But in this story, that’s not the point.

The news media is choked with stories about bratty overindulged kids who expect an award for getting up in the morning. Quiet acts of decency seldom become a top story. That’s why this blog will continue to spread the word about amazing young people wherever they can be found. And there are a lot more of them out there doing the right thing, not expecting to be the center of attention.

Years from now when Michael Spark is an old man, he will not have to live with a nagging voice inside telling him that the records and the rules can say whatever they want, but that other kid beat his ass good. His conscience will not tease him about how the real champion with the forgotten name was over two seconds faster lost only because of some lame technicality that had absolutely nothing to do with who was the stronger athlete.

And years from now when Rich Fortels is an old man, he can show his medal to his grandchildren and tell them the incredible true story of a competitor’s spirit of fair play. He will not have to live with the bitter memory of what should have been. He will not carry the weight of resentment. He can hold his head high knowing that a selfless rival gave back the honor that some goofy rule took away.

Micheal Spark let go of an award that meant a lot to him but he gained the deepest respect of a competitor and countless strangers who heard this story.  Many of  those strangers are  parents themselves and will be praying to God that their kid would do the exact same thing if faced with a similar situation. When kids do something  so profoundly right, it ripples out like the waves in a pool, touching others and serving as a living example that character is an award in itself.


Fencing In The Truth.

By: Chris Warren.

After a week of partisan screeching from both ends over two huge Supreme Court cases, a foreign trade deal, and a 150 year-plus cyclic hostility towards a flag, I’m ready to wish I was in a coma for the last few days. The headache is not from the nature of the issues, but from each faction insisting they are on the side of truth and the other is pulling off a great deception. I do believe there is a line where truth ends and lies begin, with a caveat that the specific boundaries are not easily determined by us mortals. Of course, mortals will always try anyway and fail. The failure comes out of the theory that for “my” side to be right, “your” side has to be wrong.

Although I do not consider myself a neutral bystander to any of these issues, I’m not so hardened to a view that I can’t admit those with whom I disagree have a point worth taking seriously. My boundary of truth is like one of those temporary fences used around constructions sites: Sturdy enough to maintain separation, flexible enough to be moved when needed, and is easily repaired when it gets plowed down.

There are absolutists who will shudder at my movable fence theory and accuse me of moral relativism. Naturally, their morals are the correct ones and everyone else, including me, is venturing down an evil path. It’s funny how easily they can identify everyone else’s inconsistencies while being completely if not willfully ignorant of their own. Whether it’s preaching about family values while hoping no one finds out about their own genetically-related dirt, or globe trotting aboard a carbon-puking private jet to get paid six figures giving speeches about how all the rest of us are earth killing slobs and puppets of the rich, they never fail to show us how problematic moral absolutes can be when one epically collides with a thick concrete wall of their own making.


Simply ignoring the self-appointed truth police is not enough of a defense. The pablum is too thick to plug one’s ears and hope for the best. The most effective and perhaps only defense is one’s own truth. That means clearly thinking through your beliefs and knowing how you arrived at them. It means admitting when an idea is wrong and discarding it instead of clinging to contorted rationalizations for keeping it.

More than all else it means not lifting yourself up by putting others down. It seems we live in a time when it’s not enough to be “right”. We must also beat down all who don’t go along. Almost everyone has at least one acquaintance who is on social media numerous times a day posting provocative articles and memes about controversial topics. Notice how nearly all of these nuggets of what they consider “truth” do not directly support their cause…they instead take cheap shots at the opposing cause. They are miniature versions of the larger media world. I find myself quickly clicking away from web pages and changing channels. I don’t necessarily disagree with what they are saying; I just don’t like the way they are saying it.

The default is to blame the internet and electronic media for the truth wars, but I’m not willing to go there. It’s too easy. The media as a communications mode is amoral, without  any inherent bias. People will be who they are; the internet just gives them a greater opportunity to make fools of themselves. Neither side of any issue should have to be the only one expected to move his fence to accommodate the other. For too many, the boundaries of truth are hopelessly cemented in the ground.


Everyone Is Wanted At D’s House.

By: Chris Warren.

Last week’s Twenty First Summer featured my thoughts about James, an impressive young man who has a heart and a brain and knows where he’s going. They must put something in the water in the midwestern USA. Or maybe they still teach kids about honor and respect and character. The evidence just keeps rolling in:

Today’s story of kindness that has exploded across the internet actually started a year ago: Three members of a middle school basketball team from Kenosha, Wisconsin walked off the court in the heat of the game to confront a fan of the opposing team who was heckling Desiree Andrews, one of their cheerleaders. Desiree, or D as she is called, has Down’s Syndrome. I’m not sure where the dividing line between ordinary sports event trash talking and cruel bullying is, but I am absolutely certain that mocking a Down’s Syndrome kid in front of a crowd of spectators is light years past that line.


The incident earned D three protective “big brothers.” She may not need them, though. Since the incident last year, she has won over the entire school in a way that indicates that the kids at Lincoln Middle School understand acceptance and inner beauty well above their grade level, so much so that they named the gym where this incident happened “D’s House,” after Desiree. It’s important to point out that this idea came from the student body, not the parents and administrators.

The cheerleading squad is a bitchy clique at most schools. Only the best looking, most popular girls make the cut, and they don’t let anyone forget what princesses they are. Is this a stereotype? Probably. But it’s not a completely unfair one. Let’s not fool ourselves: At many schools, D would not even be considered for a spot on the squad. Yet if one bothers to look past the superficiality that drives these decisions, giving her a chance makes complete sense. The real purpose of having cheerleaders is to stir up school spirit and create a positive vibe. Desiree has accomplished this goal almost singlehandedly. How on earth can anyone make an argument that she’s not a good cheerleader and role model for her school?

What is most beautiful about people like D is their authenticity. They don’t have a grasp on social conventions like the rest of us, so they are completely honest in everything they do and say. This can sometimes result in obnoxious behavior, but most of the time we get a person who is gentle and kind and childlike-innocent because that’s the way they really are. They are not capable of pretending to be anything else. People like D make terrible actors unless the part is to be themselves.

Probably without realizing it, D has forever changed many lives. The kids at Lincoln Middle School will go forward having seen for themselves the power of kindness and friendship and character. I’m going to be an optimist and say that kids today are mostly good. For every negative story about them that pops up in the media or on the internet, there are dozens of positive stories no one ever hears about. In that way, D is a cheerleader for her generation as much as she is for her team.

D’s friends both old and new learned early in life that kindness is more affirming than cruelty, befriending an outsider carries more rewards than risks, and both loyalty and dishonor will come back to you in proportion to how you gave it to others. It was not a planned lesson, but the most meaningful and lasting lessons never are. Years and years from now, as new classes of kids cycle through Lincoln Middle School, they will be told how and why “D’s House” got its name. It seems Desiree Andrews, the Down’s Syndrome kid who just wanted to be a cheerleader like all the other girls, has instead been given a permanent teaching position.