Pausing on a note of triumph
When Norman Corwin died recently at the age of 101, his name was unfamiliar to many Americans. That’s a shame. More people should become acquainted with the works of this prolific and thought-provoking writer. His words are as relevant today as they were seven decades ago.
Corwin is considered by many to be the “poet laureate” of radio. Throughout the medium’s golden era, before the arrival of television, Corwin wrote, directed and produced some of the finest radio programs ever aired. Given enormous artistic freedom from his bosses at CBS, Corwin explored the meaning of liberty during the 1940s, when millions died in a world exploding with conflict.
His masterpiece was “On a Note of Triumph,” a celebration of the Allied victory in Europe. It was first broadcast on V-E Day, May 8, 1945, with an audience of 60 million.
With the historic moment approaching and the deadline for this important assignment drawing closer, Corwin developed writer’s block. He didn’t know where to begin or how to tackle such a massive subject. Searching for answers, he consulted Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” in particular a poem Whitman had written after the American Civil War.
“He wrote the line, ‘Never were such sharp questions asked as this day.’ And I thought, yeah. We have sharp questions to ask,” Mr. Corwin said in a YouTube video for Anthracite Films. “We’ve beaten this monster, Hitler, the war goes on, but what are the questions? And the questions were, who have we beaten? What did it cost to beat him? Have we learned anything out of this war? And is it going to happen again?”
The program was a noble attempt at answering those questions. It brilliantly captured the sacrifice of American families, many of whom had lost loved ones in the war, causing a “surplus of widows and sweethearts” left behind to mourn the brave soldiers who secured victory.
These everyday Americans, who were “unspectacular but free,” toppled one of the most tyrannical regimes in the history of the world. That epic struggle generated perhaps the most famous lines of the memorable broadcast:
“So they’ve given up. They’re finally done in and the rat is dead in an alley back of the Wilhelmstrasse. Take a bow, G.I. Take a bow, little guy. The superman of tomorrow lies at the feet of you common men of this afternoon.”
In the decades since World War II, common soldiers have repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way to preserve the liberty our nation cherishes and others long to enjoy. Although we hold these truths to be self-evident, tyrants think they are above the law. Time and time again, great dictators have flourished, held sway and then were destroyed.
But their removal almost always comes at a horrific cost to our dedicated troops. Many pay the ultimate price, often to save the person standing next to them. Their devotion is captured in John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” We have been blessed with generations who were ready, willing and able to serve.
Just days after Norman Corwin died, one of this era’s most ruthless dictators met his end. Most appropriately, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi was found hiding in a drainpipe after his regime had been toppled. Before long, the blood-streaked body of the once-mighty leader was stashed in a commercial freezer at a shopping center and put on display for all to see.
As Gadhafi exits the scene and other dictators ponder a similar fate that may await them, Corwin’s questions are as timely as ever: “Who have we beaten? What did it cost to beat him? Have we learned anything out of this war? And is it going to happen again?”
I would add a question to Corwin’s list: Have Americans done enough to thank the brave men and women who preserve our freedoms through their blood and toil? The answer is obvious: We have not. Many in society are quick to claim their rights and occupy the terrain in protest, yet too few extend appreciation to those who make such expression possible. In village squares and marketplaces around the globe, similar gatherings would be silenced by bombs and bullets. Our nation protects such assembly in the Bill of Rights.
While pausing on a note of triumph, and preparing for yet another Veteran’s Day, let’s ponder the wisdom of Norman Corwin. Let’s also remember those still wearing the uniform and all who went before. Take a bow, G.I. We are grateful. Well done, good and faithful servants.
Kendall Wingrove is a freelance writer from Okemos, Michigan.