This Memorial Day, we remember Captain AJ High, who left us on April 3rd, just a few days short of his 90th birthday.
He was a caring, tough man who joined the Army Air Corps in the wake of Pearl Harbor, went on to fight in the Aleutian Islands (a forgotten part of the Pacific war), trained fighting men to continue the war in the skies, and helped build civil aviation as we know it today. He flew everything from prop planes to jet DC-9s, and trained many more pilots, including those who flew B-17 Fortresses, B-25s, P-38s, and B-29s.
He was one of the first pilots to fly for Trans-Texas Airways. If you’ve ever flown a Continental flight, you’ve enjoyed some of the hard work AJ gave to help build that company. Even in retirement, he worked as a docent teaching people about aviation, first at the Lone Star Flight Museum, and then at the 1940 Air Terminal Museum in Houston.
I had the pleasure of meeting, then interviewing AJ at length for the Library of Congress’s veterans oral history program. Thank heavens. As we continue to lose veterans, especially those who served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam – we have to remember what else we risk losing. These veterans not only have their own stories to tell, but are the last link to their fallen comrades – who never got a chance to live out their lives or express their experiences.
Every single World War I veteran has now passed on in the United States, Canada, Britain, France, and other countries – we lost Florence Green just last year. Korean War veterans and others who served during the Cold War, but before Vietnam, are especially likely to be forgotten.
If every reenactor, every person who collects vintage clothing or trinkets, every rabid fan of TV shows like “Mad Men” – could conduct just one oral history interview, either audio only or on video – with someone who lived through wartime, we could be assured that we will never lose this history. Don Draper is just a character on a TV show, not a real Korean war veteran; “Pearl Harbor” was a fairly awful and not especially accurate film – but if we’re not careful, it’s only these fictional stories that will be remembered.
I challenge the communities who love aural storytelling, or “retro” and vintage things to seek out the AJ Highs of the world. Last Memorial Day, outside Abilene, I met two teenagers who independently began interviewing women pilots from World War II – never having heard about the Library of Congress program. They have helped preserve the stories of so many people. Every “vintage” and “retro” fan should be able to say they’ve done the same to preserve the experiences of people, not only ideas or clothing styles or music or films or architecture. Memorial Day is not just a day for you to enjoy the beach or a stroll at the mall. It is a beautiful day to honor veterans, and commit yourself to doing just one – just one – interview. I know a historian – a historian! – who has conducted several interviews over the years but just didn’t get the chance to record the one veteran – a family member – she most cared about.
You can work with the Veterans History Project today. It costs you no more than the price of a digital audio recorder, and a few hours of your time listening to someone tell you their experience. What you’ll be saving for the veteran, his or her family and friends — and for future citizens and historians of our civilization – is priceless.
You can hear excerpts of these audio stories at both the Veterans History Project website, as well as at Sound Stages Radio today, Memorial Day, and afterwards, when a special podcast will be made available of that day’s shows.
There are a lot of people second-guessing what happened with AJ Clemente, on his first day on the job.
There are many posts on Facebook insisting that he should get another chance.
Well, there are a lot of young, nervous people whose first reaction, their first day, would not have been multiple profanities. Virtually every person in film, television, radio – they’ve had prior experience before they get a professional gig – and they know how dear it is to get one chance.
At the end of the day, we’re not all cut out the same for different stressful situations. Not everyone qualifies to be an Airborne Ranger; would we want it any other way? Same with live broadcast. Some people’s talents lie elsewhere in the same field. I think the story from “Band of Brothers”, regarding Sobel, the company commander who everyone despised, is really telling. You have a guy who is not only hated by his soldiers, but allegedly has difficulty reading a map and has no business being anywhere near a battlefield. However, his training saves their lives in the long run. The story argues that Sobel never gets over the idea of what he was supposed to be. That is a tragedy. I hope A.J. Clemente doesn’t fall into this trap and see this one moment as encapsulating his entire future. He has years ahead where he can build a career. (Also, bear in mind: Sobel’s family has disagreed with the portrayal to some degree.)
Meanwhile, we have to stop coddling poor impulse control for its own sake, because someone is starting out, etc. No, people shouldn’t demand perfection – but it does beginning professionals no favors to indicate that their mistakes have no consequences. I have seen some incredibly short-sighted, offensive posts on Twitter and Facebook from professionals in their early twenties, posts that defy common sense. (The first thought I have is that they have a helicopter parent or two who cleared the path for them, because I can’t believe someone with such poor judgment would have the merit to actually win their professional position.)
These folks either torpedo themselves, personally, or worse – the company they represent. That is sometimes the company’s fault – many companies mistakenly think just anyone young and cool can speak for them. There are other ways we see this lack of professionalism spreading, for instance, in the news world. Major gaffes in newspaper articles or broadcast tickers, because someone didn’t bother to run spell-check – or did run spell-check and then didn’t ask someone else to reread it. Sloppy, unintentionally funny research failures.
Ultimately, A.J. made the station look bad. If you want to do this kind of thing full time, you have to accept what the mistakes will cost you. I think, based on the Twitter posts he’s made, A.J. is aware of this and trying to retain some professionalism.
Speaking of mistakes — I know what I’m talking about. I have a film degree. I fumbled my chance to work at a television network. I also blew my shot to go on “Jeopardy”. I can think of maybe a half dozen other dumb things I did (or didn’t do) in my early to mid-twenties that harmed or stalled my career. You live and learn, and you move on. Frankly, I doubt I’m alone in thinking I learned far more from my mistakes (especially the big ones) than many of my successes.
A.J. can still pursue broadcasting. If he’s smart, he’ll use the notoriety somehow, and use the impression people already have of him – without expecting this specific company to give him another chance. That’s the advice I’d give – Go on Howard Stern. Endorse a company. Develop a podcast or see if you can go on local radio. Take an improv comedy class. Find another company who actively wants to give you a chance.