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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

O'Reilly: To all the unrecorded lives

Gerald A. O'Reilly (center foreground, eyes shut) recovering

Gerald A. O'Reilly (center foreground, eyes shut) recovering from a leg wound at an Italian field hospital in Spring 1945 before heading back to the line. Credit: O'Reilly family

My brother Gerry and I spent an hour Thanksgiving afternoon taking apart picture frames at my parents' house that, in some cases, hadn't been disassembled in more than 70 years. They held images of my father's life from the early 1920s in Brooklyn, where he was raised, through the war years in Europe, to the halcyon, gin-soaked nights of postwar, Stork Club Manhattan.

The photos were being scanned for a friend and author, Tim Pletkovitch, who is graciously writing a small book about my father's early life and war experiences as a soldier in the 10th Mountain Division in Italy. The 10th was an elite unit that fought the Germans in the Apennine Mountains in the final year of the war, suffering a casualty rate that exceeded 1,200 killed or wounded per month. Tim has been interviewing my father -- who will turn 91 in April -- several times a day since last May as part of an effort to record the lives of American veterans. His first book, "Civil War Fathers: Sons of the Civil War in World War II," just went into a second printing.

Two things came to mind while taking apart those frames: 1. It's amazing how many ways a picture frame has been constructed over seven decades, and 2. My father has almost no digital presence. With the exception of this posting, a photo of him published online in an earlier Newsday column, and some basic demographic data, there is nothing available on the Internet to say that he was ever alive. That thought shakes me to my core.

My father is far from alone in online obscurity. A relative handful born before the 1990s have any digital presence. Only the famous have been chronicled throughout the centuries; the rest of us are erased with time. That's what I tell myself, but it doesn't make me feel any better. It seems so wrong.

For those born after the millennium, everything is known. Far too much. Lives today are being written onto the hard drive of history on a real-time basis, regardless of whether they are interesting or worthwhile. It bothers me that future students of history almost assuredly will run across them at the expense of people who could so easily vanish, people like Fred Jessen, Ken England, Joe Dudley and Elbert Cronin, who all fought alongside my father in Italy, but never made it home.

It's the shadows in the photographs that affect me most for some reason. They are proof of a moment in time. When the photograph was taken -- when that shutter clicked -- the sun was there in the sky and the scenery was colorful, not black and white. For that moment in history it was . . . now.

You can't know how precious things are until they begin to fade away.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a columnist and a Republican political consultant.