Mesa Musings: Last 40 years are the best

Thursday is Veterans Day.

I celebrated it early by watching one of my all-time favorite films the other night.

William Wyler's 1946 classic, "The Best Years of Our Lives," which won seven Academy Awards, features an all-star cast, including Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright and Virginia Mayo.

The film portrays the plight of three servicemen — a soldier, sailor and airman — returning home from World War II. The battlefields of Europe and the Pacific have taken a physical and emotional toll on these men.

The veterans hail from the same mid-sized Midwestern city. Upon their return they discover that they and their families have changed dramatically since the nation marched off to war.

I "connected" with the film when I first viewed it in 1966 as a G.I. stationed in Seoul, South Korea. I was 20 at the time, and the film was screened like a first-run feature in a Seoul theater.

It was screened in English with Korean subtitles. The theater was packed, and I was the only American in the audience.

The film's title, "The Best Years of Our Lives," is intentionally ironic. Throughout the past two centuries U.S. servicemen have discovered in retrospect that their best years were actually spent with their mates in foxholes and barracks, rather than in peacetime America. Their country hasn't always treated veterans fairly.

While watching the film on the "big screen" in Seoul I was transported back to 1945 America — the year of my birth. I remember looking at the Korean audience and wondering what they thought of my homeland.

As the only American in the audience — and wearing my U.S. Army uniform — I felt slightly conspicuous. Fortunately, others around me did nothing to make me feel ill at ease. In light of the film's subject matter, I wasn't interested in being noticed. We weren't watching me on that screen; we were watching my father's generation.

I'm not certain that the Koreans were able to differentiate between America, circa 1945 — as portrayed in the film — and the America I'd sailed away from on a troop ship in 1965. I detected huge differences. My country had changed significantly.

As the film unfolded, I felt proud of the "good ol' U.S.A." The three military men were portrayed as thoughtful, sensitive human beings trying to readjust to civilian life. The U.S. was seen as a vigorous and decent country.

I was drawn to the film, I think, because I understood the men's trepidation as they returned home. At that time, I'd been stationed in South Korea for more than a year and had been away from home for a long time.

Within six months I'd be returning stateside to re-immerse myself in civilian life. I was already nervous. I'd grown comfortable in the military with my brothers in arms. I was certain, however, that the Army was an important way station for me but not my life's destination.

The film's depiction of the men's excitement as they savored their first moments on U.S. soil brought a corresponding elevation of my pulse. As the sailor hugged his girlfriend and his parents in the front yard of his childhood home, I couldn't help but think of my family in Costa Mesa and of our eventual reunion.

But the servicemen's initial thrill wore off and, like them, I wondered if I'd be able to fit in again in American society. I can't explain this, but at that moment I preferred sitting among strangers in that rundown Seoul theater than being teleported to the Lido Theater in Newport Beach. I wasn't quite ready to come home.

Months later I returned to this great nation and enrolled in college. In hindsight, I now see that my life took the course it was destined to take — though in 1966 that course was far from certain.

I'm happy to report that the film's three protagonists found traction in their homeland before the final credits rolled. I, too, gained traction, and the past 40 years have been the best years of my life!

On Thursday be sure to thank vets for their sacrifice.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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