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Opinion: A Sailor Bridges the Digital Divide

Older Americans must capture the magic of the Internet

two sailors shake hands

Sculptor Stephen Spears, left, connected with D-day veteran Fred Norton before Spears shipped his statue. — Above photo courtesy of Fred Norton/Referring photo by Eric Audras/PhotoAlto/Corbis

monument to sailors

Statue honoring U.S. sailors. — Photo: Maison de la France

V-mail was the emotional lifeline for Fred Norton and his U.S. Navy buddies in 1944. Short for Victory Mail, their V-mail letters to and from loved ones back home—usually three or four weeks in transit—sustained them during their long days and nights plying stormy waters off the European coast. “How things have changed,” says Norton, 87, now living in Denver.

Indeed. It is the instant communication of e-mail and the Internet that provided him, his family, a Colorado sculptor and us at the AARP Bulletin with a special thrill. Last summer, Norton’s daughter Nancy in California spotted a Bulletin item about a new statue honoring U.S. sailors who joined the decisive D-day attack at Normandy.

Norton was one of them. But he could not attend the dedication in France because of a series of recent surgeries and injuries. Since the sculptor’s studio was just an hour from Norton's home, Nancy wondered if they might meet there. She sent the sculptor, Stephen Spears, an e-mail.

He replied by e-mail the next day: “This monument is all about thanking them and letting them know their bravery and courage will not be forgotten.” Two weeks later they set the date, and a day later they met.

“My father was very emotional, but so was Mr. Spears,” Nancy Norton recalled. “All of us were emotional.” Spears asked Fred Norton the name of his ship, and they found it on the statue—LST-317. The statue was about to be shipped to Normandy, but before it was packed, Spears asked Norton to sign his name on the inside of the base.

E-mail, for Norton, became the 21st-century version of V-mail—communication that provides unexpected emotional and social benefit—only faster.

Fortunately, Norton defies the very real “digital divide,” that gap between the connected and the unconnected, between rich and poor, between the engaged and the disengaged. He is a frequent Internet visitor. Most of his contemporaries are not.

That divide cuts very sharply by age. “Internet usage is near-universal for Americans under the age of 60,” says Susannah Fox, associate director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. For those over 60 it’s not. According to the Pew project’s research, 70 percent of Americans 50 to 64 are online, but 65 percent of those over 65 are not.

Examine factors beyond the digital divide, and you’ll know that America is slipping. Broadband Internet access is critical. Yet for the first time, China has more broadband subscribers than the United States. Parts of Europe and Asia have high-speed connections that are 20 times faster at half the cost.

The nation needs to keep pace. Older Americans must catch up. Consider the rewards, namely the e-mail that Norton received from Spears: “The opportunity to share with you my inspirations in the design of this monument is my greatest reward. You see, this monument is all about you and the other brave heroes of that day that changed the course of history for us all. I thank you, sir.”

Jim Toedtman is the editor and vice president of
AARP Bulletin.

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