Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Why I remember Pearl Harbor

Today, of course, is Pearl Harbor day, the 70th anniversary of Japan's sneak attack that more or less launched the U.S. into World War II.

There are a few historical events that I consider myself pretty well versed on. From the time I was young, the Kennedy and Lincoln assassinations fascinated me, and I've read virtually everything I could get my hands on about those two events. (FYI - Oswald did it, and did it all by himself. Every other theory is crap.)

Another is Pearl Harbor, though I can't really take credit for it. Credit goes to a wonderfully gifted history teacher from Princeton High School named Pete Finelli.

We moved to Princeton after my freshman year, and U.S. History was a required sophomore course, taught by Finelli. I'd always enjoyed American history (see this entry about the Landmark series of history books I read as a kid), and on the first day of class, Finelli asked the class a series of pretty basic questions about American history, designed - I guess - to gauge where the class' knowledge baseline was.

I must have had a large number of shy classmates, because I know I wasn't any smarter than most of them, but I ended up raising my hand a lot and answering most of the questions. After class, Finelli came over, noted that I had recently transferred into the district, and asked if I had taken American history the year before at my former school. No, I told him, I just read a lot about history, and he seemed to like that.

Over the next few years, we moved beyond a normal teacher-student relationship and became pretty good friends. It turned out that Pete not only shared my love of history, but of baseball as well. He had been a minor-league pitcher, and served as a) the pitching coach for the high school baseball team, b) a sports writer for the local weekly paper and c) the play-by-play guy for the local radio station. Talk about two guys having something in common.

(Slightly off-topic story: I was reading a biography of Red Sox great Ted Williams, and learned that his first wife had been from Princeton. The next day after class, I rushed over to Pete's desk, anxious to share my discovery with him, and maybe amaze or surprise him a bit. I showed him the passage and asked, "Did you know Ted Williams' wife was from here?" It didn't have the desired effect. "Yeah, Ted and I used to go fishing together in the off-season," Pete said.)

And one of Pete's favorite topics was Pearl Harbor. Each year he would spend an entire week lecturing and quizzing on Pearl Harbor, getting us ready for a great learning experience: Watching the movie Tora, Tora, Tora. This will be hard for my children to understand, but in the fall of 1971, there were no VCRs, DVDs, computer downloads, Netflix or any other means by which to watch a full-length, feature motion picture in a classroom.

Unable to bring the movie to the class, Pete figured out how to bring the class to the movie. He convinced the local theater owner to rent the movie and screen it for Pete's history class. Preparing for Tora, Tora, Tora day was a big production. In addition to teaching us all about the attack, Pete would prepare us for some of the film's cinematic shortfalls, such as the way white letters were used in the subtitles, and didn't show up very well with white naval uniforms in the background.

Come movie day, we had a prescribed path to walk the 8-10 blocks from the school to the theater. A small herd of 150 or so kids would make the hike, watch the movie, then trek back to the school by lunchtime. It was about a 10-day immersion in all things Pearl Harbor, culminating with the film, and I have to believe that every kid who graduated from PHS in those years could quote Japanese Admiral Yamamoto saying, "I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant, and filled him with a terrible resolve."

As I mentioned, Pete and I remained friends beyond the classroom years. I dabbled in radio, and he eventually brought me on as his stat guy for football broadcasts, and as a color guy for baseball broadcasts. When he stopped writing for the local paper, he helped me get hired there for my first real sportswriting job. We were even linked to another historical event: I was in Pete's RV, along with his family, on the way to the state Legion baseball tournament in New Ulm on August 8, 1974, when we had a flat tire just north of Mankato. While waiting for the tow truck, we listened on the radio to President Nixon's resignation speech, and enjoyed sharing an historic moment together.

Pete has now retired and lives in Rochester, but I never get past Aug. 8th or Dec. 7th on the calendar without remembering a terrific teacher and all-around good guy who worked very hard to make history come alive for his students.


  1. Pam Finelli BorgenDecember 8, 2011 at 3:06 PM

    My Dad and I agree that Oswald did it, and did it all by himself. Every other theory is crap.

    1. Pam,
      My condolences at the passing of your father. I don't know if you remember me. I babysat for you and your brother in the late '60s. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.
      Anna Jean (Kornmann) Moxom

    2. Of course I remember you. Thank you for your well wishes. I will be sure to pass the condolences onto my mother from you as well.

  2. Your dad actually helped bring me around to that point of view. My senior year, he gave me a quarter of "independent study" to research the assassination and prepare a presentation for all of his history classes.

    At that time I read Mark Lane's "Rush to Judgment," and Josiah Thompson's "Six Seconds in Dallas" and as an impressionable teenager I bought into all the conspiracy theories. Your dad just sort of humored me.

    As I got a little older and minimally wiser, and read more of the case, I came around to Pete's point of view, and I now think Gerald Posner's "Case Closed" is the definitive work on the subject.

    As most of us learn as we get older, our dads were right all along! :)

  3. Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination - my two favorite memories of history class with Pete Finelli. He was such a good history teacher.
    ~Paulette (Peterson) Julson