Davis Merritt: Advice from past shows how we’ve changed

10/02/2012 12:00 AM

10/01/2012 5:47 PM

Just when you were convinced that our dispiriting pre-Election Day slog through blind ambition, lies, greed and incivility was all we have, along comes a glimmer of hope if not actual redemption.

It’s an e-mail from a freshman at Elon University in North Carolina. John Gavin has a copy of a column I wrote in 1990 about a letter my great-uncle Ghio Suiter – Gavin’s great-grandfather – wrote from the trenches of France in 1918. His grandfather sent it to him.

Ghio Suiter graduated from Duke University and Virginia Medical School just in time for World War I and, at 25, was shipped to France. After the war, he became the sole doctor in tiny Weldon, N.C. Rarely a night passed without him, awakened by a panicky phone call, picking up his black bag and driving to a patient’s home. He also delivered me and one of my sisters.

“After much traveling by water, rail and foot,” his World War I letter said, “I am at last in my dugout in the trenches…. Only a little while ago, our guns let loose and I could hear shells passing over head for half an hour on their way to Germany. They make a pretty sound going the other way but not so pleasant coming this way…. Here I get a chance to know how rats and insects live, as well as poor unfortunates. Last night I had rats running across my face and playing all over the dugout.”

The letter to three nephews who had just enrolled in Randolph Macon Academy in Virginia was written only a little more than a generation ago, but its voice is closer in chronology than in culture to where our society is today.

After urging the freshmen to “be boys, play hard, study hard and take an active interest in everything that is for the good of the school … don’t be afraid to stand up for the right,” this:

“Don’t forget Mother and Father back home. They have sacrificed much for you. Write to them often and always be absolutely frank with them…. If you make mistakes, tell them about it. If you happen to overspend your allowance, don’t go borrowing money and gambling to get it back. Be frank with Father. He will understand….

“I have much confidence in each of you and am expecting each of you to be men worthy of your parents and your country, capable of taking the places of many excellent men who have died and are still dying that right may triumph over might….

“It seems now that the war will end before you boys reach 18 years. I certainly hope it will, as this is a hard life. I know you will do your part willingly whenever you are called on to do it, but I am happy to think you will be spared all of this.”

How quaint and naive, you say, but that’s how people thought and talked back then, and this is now. People have changed. And doctors don’t make house calls.

Precisely my point.

And we can hope it is also great-grandson John Gavin’s point. His e-mail closed: “I plan to keep the scan of the article my grandfather sent to me so that I may in turn pass this valuable advice on to my own children one day.”

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