Saturday, June 7, 2014


Yesterday's 70th anniversary of WWII's D-Day invasion caused me to reflect (albeit not for the first time) on the question posed in the above title.
The "greatest generation" is what we continue to call (and rightfully so) the men and women who faced and endured WWII and the years immediately preceding and then following. Years that made the United States the richest, most successful, most generous, most powerful, and most admired country in the world.
I pose that those conditions --- at least the perception of them --- aren't necessarily the case any more; either in our own eyes or in the eyes of others.
I won't get too much into the politics of it, although they certainly play a part.
I just want to do a brief, simple, common man comparison between the people, the folks, who made up that generation and what we seem (to me) to have today. At 66 years of age, I am part of the first wave of "baby boomers" conceived right after the big war. So, since I was born while my parents were in their late teens, in a manner of speaking (like plenty of other kids who came along in the late Forties), I sort of "grew up" with my parents and therefore feel a close kinship to their generation. Certainly more so than today's so-called "Millennials", and at least two or three generations prior to them.

My parents' generation were the children of the Great Depression. Most of them were well versed in hardship and sacrifice and tough times. More of the same --- this time in a war effort to foil the advances of truly evil forces --- only rallied them to show the stuff they were made of, what they had been forged into from frontier times onward. Yeah, you've heard it before … when the going got tough, the tough got tougher.
On the battle front and home front alike – men, women, and even children buckled down and did everything they could, whatever it took, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and support our country and our troops to win the war that had exploded on our very doorstep one infamous morning in December.
And after we and our allies had prevailed, the United States was ready to bust loose with renewed vigor and determination to make our country even more exceptional (it wasn't considered a distasteful term back then) than ever.
And that's what we became. That's what the Greatest Generation made us.

The Greatest Generation seemed to expect and accept that life came with some share of hard times and challenges. And the way to overcome them was through effort, hard work, and focus on achieving individual goals.
Today (and I'll expand this to include those beyond just the current generation) too many people seem bent on achieving their goals simply by whining and bellyaching and blaming others for their shortcomings, and looking to somebody else (often the all-to-willing government) to "level the playing field" and provide them an easier path.
Now I'm not naïve enough to believe or say that hard work was ever a guarantee to success. I'd have to look no further than my own father --- who, in words spoken to me shortly before he died, noted that he "worked hard at hard work" without any significant financial success (though the measure of a man and father can be taken in other equally important ways, but that's a discussion point for another time). But, nevertheless, hard work and focus is a way --- and the best way, in my humble opinion --- to achieve success. If for no other reason than my belief that one (whether he or she realizes it or not) always appreciate something you've earnedover something simply handed out.

The Greatest Generation worked hard and they rightfully figured that earned them the right to play hard. And they were given the freedoms to do so.
They smoked cigarettes; drank alcoholic beverages; ate red meat by the ton, along with eggs and cheese and pasta – and saved the damn grass for the cows and other animals; drove all over hell in cars without seat belts; rode bicycles and motorcycles without helmets; spanked their kids (just like they themselves and generations preceding had been spanked); went to church and believed primarily in the Judeo-Christian values that the founding fathers based the structure of our country on; got bloody noses and skinned knuckles (at all different ages) fighting over silly things like honor and truth; believed in heroes (without a mad rush to find fault and discredit anyone who got tagged with such a term); didn't instantly slap a lawsuit on a neighbor if his dog got loose and scratched one of their kids, or if an errant baseball came crashing through a window; sent their kids to school with baloney sandwiches, an apple, and a Twinkie; sat down at the supper table together as a family unit; prayed at home, school, and public events; stood for the playing of the Star Spangled Banner; gave their kids chores to do as a means to teach them how to earn money as opposed to receiving an automatic "allowance" for doing little or nothing; let kids work outside the home when they were deemed responsible enough by parents and employers (without a pile of state and local permits and regulations) --- and I'm not talking "sweat shop" labor here, I mean things like delivering newspapers or groceries, mowing lawns, painting houses, shoveling snow, or farm kids driving tractors/bailing hay/slopping hogs/feeding chickens/etc.; stood up to bullies on an individual basis, not by giving them the glory and attention of having whole campaigns mounted against them and their pathetic practices; learned about winning and losing in competitive events, not finding satisfaction in merely "participating" … and on and on.
And, I'll repeat, a big part to all of this was the "freedoms" to do these things, suffer associated mistakes, learn lessons, and make choices for themselves.

Contrast that to today where there are rules and restrictions on damn near everything we do, say … and (as we apparently are on the brink of) even think.
No wonder so many find the only (or easiest) recourse is to whine and blame and point fingers. Who stands and fights any more? 

An excellent example of what I'm trying to convey is the recent widely-publicized example of the old British soldier now in a nursing home who was refused permission to leave and attend D-Day ceremonies at Normandy. I don't know how much of an argument he put up. But I strongly suspect he didn't waste a lot of time pissing and moaning and throwing a hissy fit – he simply made the determination he was going to attend and took steps to make it happen. Nursing home personnel found him missing shortly before the anniversary ceremony in Normandy and, after a panicked search, they discovered that, sure enough, the old gentleman was in attendance at the ceremony, mingling happily with his old comrades from the battle.
Now that's the spirit of the Greatest Generation.
The flip side, unfortunately, is that the reason the nursing home (I'm speculating here) likely refused permission for the old warrior to make the trip in the first place was safety concerns for his health/well-being and for their liability in allowing him to go.
Good ol' lawsuits, remember? And the knee-jerk reaction to try and avoid them at all costs (including the price of common sense and the guts to stand and fight for same).

Don't get me wrong, I'm neither naïve nor stupid enough to pretend that everything under the Greatest Generation was totally hunky-dory and we didn't have problems that needed addressing. As examples, Racial Inequality and Women's Rights issues (especially after how strongly the women on the home front performed during the war) were matters of concern; and practices were in place or beginning that would soon become Environmental problems.
But they would not go unnoticed or unaddressed for very long.

Furthermore, many of the problems (in my view) we face today as far as such drastic contrasts in attitudes and practices between then and now are really the direct result – stemming from the best of intentions – of the Greatest Generation members themselves.
I heard my parents say at least a hundred times, "I want my kids to have it better than I did." Wonderful sentiment, right? That made me want the same for my kids. Along with every other parent --- and on and on and so forth. Until "better" somehow became "easier" and "easier" became "effortless and entitled" … up to where the government (again with the best of intentions, at least in the beginning) was moved to march in eagerly and relentlessly in order to "help" us.
So that's where we're at today. And, in my humble opinion, it ain't a particularly good place to be.

A popular, oft-repeated quote is: "If we don't learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it." That's generally meant in a precautionary way and I don't necessarily dispute it.
But I would add: Sometimes the lessons we learn from history should be repeated and maintained.

Don't know where all of this is coming from or why I felt the need to share. But it seemed important to get it off my chest.
Just sayin' …


jrlindermuth said...

Well said, my friend. Can't argue against anything you're saying. In the end we're all responsible for our own actions. And that's one of the virtues largely missing in today's society. So much easier to blame the other guy for our own failings.

Brian Drake said...

Couldn't agree more.

Peter Collinson said...

A lot of food for thought there but one thing stands out for me.
Many of my generation and the one preceding it seem to see an upsurge of people wanting something for nothing, expecting an easy path to success. I cannot see much of this around me.
When I was a kid I knew men, the fathers of my friends, who worked unglamorous, simple jobs and managed to make ends meet. I knew men who worked as night watchmen and gas station attendants who still had a little house in suburbia. Their car was old and their children wore hand-me-downs, but they had a little piece of the American Dream.

Today I know people working two or even three jobs who cannot make ends meet, who cannot get ahead, who cannot provide for their families.
I don't understand what happened economically over the past 30-40 years to allow this, but I know this much: if I was working 70 hours a week and still couldn't provide for my children I would be desperate.
And I would view the Greatest Generation as having lived in a completely different world.

Richard Prosch said...

Agree, Wayne. Nice post. My new favorite guy is Mike Rowe. Maybe you know him --he's worth following on FB.

wayne d. dundee said...

Thanks for commenting, everybody.

John and Brian - Glad you are in basic agreement.

Peter - It's true that the Greatest Generation lived in a different world, but surely not an easier one. And working more than one job to make ends meet is certainly nothing new. My dad did it; I even did it a couple different times in my life ... The hardest punch over the past 30-40 years, in my opinion, is the loss of so many middle class/blue collar jobs (factory workers and the like). This was thanks to many factors such as corporate greed, poor int'l trade agreements, govt. over- regulation, overly generous benefits packages, etc - all of which made our cost of goods higher and helped drive production overseas ... I would add that anybody who can't make it working 70-80 hrs a week might need to reconsider relocating to where there are better opportunities. There ARE still good jobs and good wages in this country. I went to 5 different high schools and more grade schools than I honestly can remember because my dad was always on the move, looking for better opportunities ... One other point: The Greatest Generation and those immediately following needed a lot less to be content. A roof over their heads (maybe in just a rented house or apartment), food on the table, healthy kids you hoped would make it through high school, a TV in the living room with a handful of channels received free off an antenna on the roof, maybe a few days vacation in the summer to a nearby lake or only just attending the county fair activities. TODAY: Everybody *deserves* to own their own home (whether they can afford it or not), TVs in every room of the house with a gazillion channels off a cable or dish system, a DVD library and game systems with a gazillion more games that have to be "upgraded" every other year, smart phones for every family member, at least one PC in the house, AC in every room, a must-have mega-bucks college education planned for the kiddies, and a minimum week-long family vacation at some distant destination every summer. All those things are nice, but they really, truly aren't essential to "providing for your family" ... and having to settle for anything less is where the whining and blaming begins.

Richard - I, too, am a big fan of Mike Rowe. I don't follow him on FB, though, so I will have to rectify that ... Another guy who talks in a similar vein but doesn't get as much exposure is actor John Ratzenburger (Cliffie, from the old CHEERS TV show). You might want to keep an eye out for him, too.