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A cloudy future commences

June 28, 2004|AL MARTINEZ

The sun was disappearing below a misty ocean horizon as the graduates at Palisades High were receiving their diplomas. By the time they had tossed their hats into the air as a signal of completion, twilight had settled over the campus. And the descending darkness became a metaphor for the uncertainty of their new life.

I can still hear the recessional being played by the school band as the new grads filed off the field, looking young and feeling mature.

Among them, smiling and waving our way, was our Teengirl, both determined and vulnerable, a gifted artist, ready to head off to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Others in this exceptional group of graduates will be developing their talents and ambitions from Yale to USC, with a lot of state and community colleges thrown in. Not everyone has the kind of money needed to buy his way into the prestige schools. Grants and student loans will fuel the academic career of Teengirl, who will leave her past and her turtle behind as she heads for a dormitory about 2,000 miles away.

Pali's graduation ceremony ended with fireworks bursting blossoms of color into the early darkness, each one an individual explosion of sound, like far-off gunfire. I tried not to think in those terms, but there is inevitability in wondering what the young face as they march away from high school, adapting slowly in a world gone crazy.

I've pretty much given up worrying about those who have in many ways determined our fate by falling victim to the kind of hyperbole that elects today's politicians. The big smile, the soothing words, crooned to us like a mother over a crib, get them into office because there are so many of us who can't tell a lie from a lullaby. And they get us into a war.

I do worry about our Teengirl, whose name is Nicole, and about her cousin Shana, who'll be graduating next year, and about Jeffrey and Joshua, who'll be coming along, and all the other shiny young faces, your own Jeffs and Joshes, who'll one day be peering up from under their mortarboards and parading away from their pasts, diplomas in hand and fireworks in the sky.

The world feels on edge to me, with uncertainty feeding violence and violence feeding the uncertainty, the way it was before World War II, when a kind of cultural restlessness had nations arming and looking toward their borders. Nehru once sensed "the winds of war," and I think we're sniffing the winds today.

My Teengirl and all the other 500 graduates who tossed their white and blue hats into the twilight are facing not only the normal apprehensions of a new life, but also the configuration of their lives by the circumstances of war.

Their future is being shaped by leaders who equate right with might, and by an enemy that has managed to horrify the world while preaching the goodness of God. What must God be thinking?

The grainy video of Kim Sun Il crying "I don't want to die," over and over, the depth of his sobs a low groan under the tears, lingers in my memory in sad contrast to the cheers that rang through Pali High's stadium as each senior's name was called. I see Kim's decapitated body blurring into images of my white-robed Teengirl reaching for her diploma, and I shudder to think of the world she has inherited.

What will the lunatics do next, one wonders, and how will our cowboys in Washington respond? We don't wonder alone. Traveling in France and England, touring with Americans from every state and of every political stripe at Normandy, I heard the questions asked with unnerving frequency. What's next? What will they do? How will we respond? The enemy is a series of shadows and whispers, dodging around our armies and missiles to bedevil our tactics and mock our strength.

A determined people can endure a thousand bombs and still rise after the chaos to win the day. We should have learned in Vietnam that the new combatants are adversaries of the soul, and we aren't going to win the war with bombs and missiles. The warriors of the desert find glory in death and are not intimidated by our puffery.

Someday sanity will regain a foothold in the world, and wiser men than those who rule today will find ways out of the horror that clouds the march of the young into the deepening night. But meanwhile they face the potential of human bombs shattering the malls or holiday festivities or sports gatherings or dance halls. They face the prospect of dirty bombs, clouds of toxic chemicals and poisoned water, of a food supply at risk and airplanes turned into missiles.

They don't deserve the terror created by the generations that passed before, but each generation bears the sins of the old, and war is the sin we have burdened them with. Watching our Teengirl stride from the ceremonies was like watching tomorrow emerging from all of our yesterdays. The daylight had gone, and a long night lay ahead.

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at

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