WHAT THEY ACHIEVED
June 6, 2014, marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the operation that began the Allied invasion of German-occupied Western Europe,ultimately leading to an Allied victory in WWII. Revisiting the details of this phenomenal event, again, served to remind me of the incredible accomplishments of the Greatest Generation, especially their gaining that victory in the face of overwhelmingly impossible odds. This led me to consider how we are doing with the priceless legacy we have been entrusted with through that generation’s victory and beyond that, to consider what lessons remain for us in their accomplishments that could lead to our gaining victory over today’s issues that may seem just as overwhelmingly impossible.
During the 70th anniversary celebration of D-Day, I read an awe-inspiring story entitled 93-year-old WWII Vet to Parachute into Normandy – Again. This was the story of Jim Martin who, as a private in the 101st Airborne, was one of the paratroopers dropped behind German lines in the hours before the D-Day landings. Jim determined that, to honor the 70th anniversary of D-Day, he would go back to Normandy, to parachute onto the same soil he touched seven decades before and he did just that. Reading Jim’s story provided reminders for me about the unique qualities of his generation and that brought illumination to my considering the application of those qualities in resolving the most significant challenges facing us today.
One enlightening point of Jim’s story came from him talking about the 101st Airborne’s mission related to D-Day. Their mission was to keep the Germans from reinforcing their troops on the dunes. Jim and his comrades landed right in the middle of those German reinforcements.”That was a slaughter-house,” he recalled. “There was SS all over the place, and they just slaughtered us. My colonel was lost. My company commander was lost.” What was supposed to be three days of fighting in Normandy went on for a month.”That’s the way we were trained, we accepted that,” Jim says. “And no matter how many people are there against you, what the odds are doesn’t matter. We’re going to win.” Perhaps the most enlightening point in Jim’s story, though, was his simple conclusion that this took place “in a time when … right was right and wrong was wrong, and everyone knew the difference.”
HOW THEY LIVED
Since I’m a Baby Boomer, I didn’t live through that time. But, much of life in America when I was growing up was very similar to the way it had been prior to my generation. And, of course, since I was raised by those who did live through that time, I heard countless detailed first-hand stories of what life was like prior to my generation. In addition to the enlightening points I gained from Jim Martin’s story, it led me to reflect on other values that were common “back in the day” that are now rare or missing altogether and to immediately recognize how restoring them would greatly benefit our community today. As I was considering stories from my experience that might best illustrate some of these now-rare values , I came across a couple of articles that included a few examples of what I had in mind. Since I felt that these, along with those from Jim Martin’s story, supply a sufficient sense of those once-common values, rather than “reinvent the wheel” on this topic, I decided to provide the following related excerpts from those articles:
The first article is from The Legacy Project at Cornell University. It’s entitled Going, Going, But Not Yet Gone: The Greatest Generation. In my view, the key portions of this were the following quotations from members of the Greatest Generation who had been interviewed as part of the project:
80-YEAR-OLD MANNY ON WORK ETHIC:
“My first job? Delivery boy. Seventeen bucks a week, that was big money back then. Then I became a tool and die maker’s apprentice in a machine shop on Saturdays. Then I had a friend, her father was a shop steward in a commercial bakery, so I got a big increase. I joined the bakery as a truck driver. That was a dollar fifty an hour. I did that on the weekends, on Saturdays and summers. I had to. I had no money. I used to walk home because I couldn’t afford the subway.”
91-YEAR-OLD LARRY ON LIVING WELL WITH LESS
“Let me tell you, in the 1930s we had the Depression. If you think you got a Depression today, it’s nothing like it was then. People didn’t even have enough to eat back then. A lot of the dads in the neighborhood weren’t working. And we shared simple things because people didn’t have money. We’d maybe get a nickel once in a while. We were half a block from a wonderful park, they had lots of activities there for kids, and wading pools, and we had a huge skating pond down there. And they’d have band concerts down there in the summer the whole neighborhood would go down there. There were popcorn wagons parked all around there. We kids would have a nickel and we’d sit there for several minutes trying to decide “What should I have?” And these poor guys, they’re trying to wait on you, they’re patient waiting for you to decide: Do you want popcorn or do you want ice cream? You want a Holloway sucker or what do you want? And once in a while at the movies, they would have Saturday matinees for kids, for ten cents. And after the movie if we had another nickel we’d stop at a place that had ice cream and popcorn and we’d get that. And boy, we really had a Saturday afternoon.”
The second article is entitled The Greatest Generation and its legacy …. It’s written by another Baby Boomer. For me, the most relevant part of this was the author’s following recollection of what life was like for his Greatest Generation parents:
“I am blessed to be the son of two wonderful and amazing people. Both my parents were born prior to the Great Depression and their childhood was shaped by the devastation of that era. They grew up with little (in comparison to me or to my children). They worked from early youth with family chores and to make a buck here and there. They endured adversity and want only to find the world at war in their young adulthood. They and their families worked and served at home and abroad to secure victory against the Nazis. Their married life was shaped by Korea and the Cold War. My father started his own business and poured his heart and soul and countless hours of effort and energy to make a living and to make a life for his family. My mother worked in the business and kept the house and served as primary parent on site. In addition to all of this, both were extremely active in the community — the Town Board, the volunteer Fire Department, the Women’s Club, Scouts, etc… Their legacy was one of sacrifice and service.”
“Their legacy was one of sacrifice and service.” That really offers a great summary of what I’m attempting to address here. I’m not advocating “rewinding the clock” and having every aspect of today’s life returned to the way it was “back in the day”. Certainly, I wouldn’t want to see us returned to a time of the world being at war nor of a world-wide great depression. Likewise, I’m not advocating reverting to a society where the men go work at their jobs, the women work at home and those who don’t look like us live in another part of town. But, I do believe that reacquiring many of the Greatest Generation’s values and applying them to today’s circumstances can make huge improvements to life in America today. Those values that, so unlike today, meant that the average Joe or Jane lived their lives with a true other-oriented sense of community, rather than just being focused on “What’s in it for me?” The difference (and I think superiority) of those once-common values jump off the page when you read the quotes above. A common theme of Jim Martin’s comments and those of 80-year-old Manny is a phrase I was taught when I was growing up … “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” When’s the last time you saw that attitude being taken in dealing with challenges facing our community today? And, underscoring all of this was the comment from 91-year-old Larry, when he said, “And once in a while at the movies, they would have Saturday matinees for kids, for ten cents. And after the movie if we had another nickel we’d stop at a place that had i ce cream and popcorn and we’d get that. And boy, we really had a Saturday afternoon.” When is the last time you saw kids come back from a movie at the Cineplex, revved up on candy at $15 a box, sighing contentedly and saying “Boy, we really had a Saturday afternoon”?! Our abundance is exponential compared to what those who came before us had while our appreciation for how richly blessed we are is microscopic compared to the gratefulness of Larry and his contemporaries.
I intend for this to be Part One of a series of articles on this topic. In the coming weeks, I plan to explore how reacquiring the once-common values of the Greatest Generation can be beneficial in applying them to our present-day challenges. I see this as a search for how repairing our social fabric in this way might offer solutions to a broad range of issues. Of course, I welcome your comments on each of the topics, to add to the discussion. Likewise, if there are topics you see as being relevant here that I fail to take up, please expand the conversation by sharing your views on these too.