I have a lot of time to reflect these days. I will die any day now I’m sure; Hell, I’m 95 and thought I would be long gone by now. My youngest great-granddaughter just got her driver’s license and my children are retiring…why am I still here? Watching the 75thanniversary of D-Day on the news was bittersweet. The memories came flooding back. It was frightening and exhilarating, especially for a kid who had never ventured beyond Utah. My friends are all gone now so there is nobody to talk to about what we went through and what it all meant. Yeah, we killed bad people and saved the world I suppose, but our legacy seems to be viewed through rose-colored glasses.
I’ve had a good life and a long run. I had a wife that loved me and put up with all my bull-shit, and our kids did OK, even in spite of me. I traveled the world, drank the finest scotch and drove on the wrong side of the road. I played golf with Arnold Palmer and was in the audience to see Elvis’ comeback in Las Vegas. I collected expensive contemporary art; enjoyed deep-sea fishing and always drove a new Cadillac. I hosted parties for the rich and famous, owned many fine watches and first-editions (Robert B. Parker was my guilty pleasure though.) I was an excellent business man and made a lot of money. That’s what we did right? We wanted to give our children everything we didn’t have, so we worked. The problem is, the more you made you more you wanted. I can’t think of anything still on my bucket-list; actually, there are a couple of things: I never restored the Jag XKE-beautiful car… and I should have been a better father.
Here’s the thing; ever since Tom Brokaw coined the phrase “The Greatest Generation,” that’s how we were referred to-and I believed it. Problem is, we weren’t. Don’t get me wrong, we sacrificed a lot and many never came home, but it was a different time. As a young man I was caught up in the romance of it all; travel to a foreign country, dress in uniform and impress the girls back home. I listened to the radio and saw the newsreels at the movies, so I appreciated there was a threat, but it didn’t seem real; at first anyway. Everyone was behind the war effort too; actors and celebrities promoted war-bonds and austerity to help “The Boys.” I was fresh out of high-school with few prospects; besides, all my friends were taking about joining and killing Nazi’s. Of course, there was a 50-50 chance we’d be in the pacific fighting the Japs, but at least we would be in the action.
Reality did finally settle in-when the bodies started going home in a box. And the bombs…night and day, good weather or pouring rain, they came. Seeing blood was never easy for me; I got queasy with a nose-bleed, so I always had a knot in my stomach and felt nauseous because there was always blood. The fear in the eyes of the people we were trying to save said it all. They had lost family and friends; many didn’t have a proper roof over their heads or regular meals and never knew if the madness would ever end.
My point is we were doing what we needed to do-what we had to do. The romance was gone, save for the few times we had a USO show or went to dances attended by the locals. We all knew if we weren’t successful, the world would be a much different and darker place. In the end, we did prevail and celebrated accordingly. We were war hero’s now. The world was safe so we could start settling down and having a well-deserved life. Get a job, buy a car and move to the suburbs. A bigger car? Good idea. New furniture and longer more lavish vacations-of course. We had more income than our parents and more enticing ways to spend it, so we did. We also decided our children should want for nothing. Most of us grew-up in the hard-scrabble world of the depression before the war made America the envy of everyone else and knew we wouldn’t make our children suffer like we did. They needed the privilege of excess.
This is where I take issue with “The Greatest Generation” premise; we created the mess we are in today. By spoiling our children and giving them everything, they lost the value of hard work and the rewards that follow. We grew up only buying what we could afford; credit was for purchasing a home, not a shopping spree at the mall. My generation did suffer greatly, but we learned about unity and sacrifice for the greater good; unfortunately, we lost the ability to teach that critical lesson. By eliminating that part of their upbringing, they “heard” about our sacrifices, but never experienced it. They saw us chase material things more vigorously than nurturing them and grew disillusioned with the world we created. When they rebelled, we recoiled at the results. We appeared conservative because our views were becoming so contrary to theirs-which was true. The loud music, the hair, the contempt of authority exacerbated the divide. We held our military service in such esteem and couldn’t accept their opposition to our values. Korea was odd. We still had military superiority, but the world had changed, and the goals were different. Besides, our children were still quite young and still heard romantic tales of WW2, so aside from the economy sputtering, life was still good. Vietnam was a tipping point. We still had the opinion America could do no wrong, so for our children to so violently oppose this war was unconscionable. We fought for god and country; because it was right, but also because it was popular and there was virtually no opposition. This time was different; the kids made a valid point-too bad it took almost another generation to realize it.
We taught our kids by example to accumulate money and material things, which they passed on to their children. We tell our grandchildren about growing up and the simple things that brought us pleasure as they smile and roll their eyes and ask for their cell phone back… Of course, there are exceptions; fine people that invested time and energy into their families and led by proper example how to be a decent and productive citizen. To not live beyond their means and be kind to one another. Their stories are generally at the end of the evening news as a “Feel Good” story to lessen the negative and numbing events of our everyday world. My generation should have viewed ourselves as caretakers of the values that make this country great and passed that legacy on. It takes courage and determination to do the right thing-maybe we left it all on the battlefield.