Friday, May 24, 2013

Memorial Day with the Greatest Generation

Memorial Day Weekend, my memories are the opening of the lake place, the Indy 500 on the radio and the sound of the rotisserie on the grill going er-whine, er-whine, er-whine as the chicken turned over the coals, and of course, my mom, my dad and their friends having a party, drinking and eating, laughing and telling stories.

We are losing about a thousand WWII vets a day. Called by Tom Brokaw, the “Greatest Generation”, these men and women all in their 80s and 90s are coming to the end of their long journey.
My parents were members of this generation, so were all their friends. They were the adults I watched and learned from when I was a kid. I learned plenty from them, good and bad.
They were part of and benefited from the greatest growth this country or any other has ever experienced. The post WWII years created the middle class in this country, economic demand, rising wages, worker protections, leisure time and of course, job security. They had no qualms about investing in schools, good roads and the space program. They wanted nothing but good for their children. For every body's children.

With Memorial Day this weekend we’ll see all the images again of the “Good War” and the well-deserved paeans to my parent’s generation. I lived it and I saw it.

For my dad and his fellow vets, there was no PTSD treatment. Most of them wouldn’t admit it if they had it. It was “manly” to ignore any problem you may have suffered from the war. My dad was a Glider pilot, the 2nd glider across the Rhine during Operation Varsity. Varsity was the largest airborne operation in history. It was also the first time the pilots had to form up in Infantry Companies and fight on the ground after they landed. Dad participated in a battle called Burp Gun Corner in a small German town’s crossroads. They held off a panzer tank company for over 30 hours. Dad had a shrapnel wound in his leg from the landing zone and he had the heel shot off his boot during the fight at the crossroads. They prevailed in the fight. Dad was awarded the Bronze Star, one of his fellow pilots won the Silver Star.

One of my dad’s best friends was a tank commander who fought all the way across Europe, another was a platoon leader in the 101st Airborne and another was a submariner. Tough guys, good friends and overall good people, what they had in common, as well as the war, is that they self-medicated. I believe they all had PTSD.

Dad was pretty wild when he was first home, without telling my mother, he and a buddy flew from North Dakota to Guatemala in a single engine plane. He called her from Arizona. He did buy her a gift, a couple of feather pictures of exotic birds. She wasn’t happy. When he wanted to go out with his friends he did. That’s what all the “guys” did. The wives, bitched about it but, didn’t say much to their husbands.

My father and his friends worked hard, played hard and loved their families, but it was all on their terms. If my mom didn’t want to go where my dad wanted to go, she never said much and went along. That’s what women did. Years later, long after my dad was gone, my mother let loose about how angry she was at him, she was really mad. I imagine she wasn’t the only woman carrying years of anger around with her.

I had friends whose fathers beat them, not spankings, beatings. Some guys beat their wives as well. My dad wasn’t one of them, but he knew who they were and never said anything. Neither did my mother, or their friends. They just didn’t talk about it. The kids didn’t either. When it arrived in my family, dad acted. My aunt showed up at a family barbecue wearing sunglasses, she kept them on after the sun went down. My dad lifted them off her face and she had two black eyes, dad hauled my uncle off to the other side of the garage and kicked the living shit out of him. The beatings stopped for a while and then started again later. Nothing more was said. I was 8 years old at the time, I loved my aunt and I never had much of a relationship with my uncle after that. When I was in high school I got his attention by throwing him off the dock into the lake and I didn’t do it gently. I got in a few punches that I’d been saving since that Sunday night when I was 8 years old.

Couples, who should have divorced, didn’t. My mom’s best friend was divorced and worked in her father’s business; she was a rarity in the 50’s. One of my good friend’s mother was divorced, two divorcees, two kids and I knew them both. Most kids my age never even knew of a divorced couple or knew any kids from a divorce.

My dad was a misogynist like his friends. (One of them called his wife “It” to her face and in front of their kids.) In retrospect; my dad should have known better since his mother was a very strong woman who participated in all aspects of running their farm and handled all the money.  My dad ran everything, my mother got an allowance, a car and she had charge accounts for food, gasoline and at several clothing stores. Dad took care of the rest.

I knew dad loved mom, but he seldom expressed it. He called me when mom was diagnosed with uterine cancer and the first thing I noticed was how he talked about her using words I’d never heard him use before, he told me how much he loved her and how much he needed her and how special she was. He was frightened to be alone. When she recovered, he went back to his old ways. Several years later I called him out on it and he was stunned. He didn’t have any idea that his treatment of my mom was out of line. Once again, he never roughed her up but he didn’t treat with the respect she deserved and after her recovery he just went back to his old ways.

Kids in my generation, the Boomers, grew up listening to our parents, mostly the fathers, calling people, spics, wops, kikes, rag heads, sand niggers, chili shitters, niggers, polacks, bohunks, chinks and nips. I heard my dad’s friends say things like, “Jack’s a good nigger.” Or “He’s a pretty good guy for a god damned kike.” Or “My old lady has that chink woman cut her hair, does a nice job for a slant eye.” They grew up with that language and more from their fathers, the additional slurs they heard as kids were all of the above layered with religious slurs like, “Cat lickers, holy rollers, asshole Mormons, papists and more.” I don't hear that much anymore, I’m glad, for the most part, my generation stopped that kind of talk. My parents never said anything to me about dating, but I’m sure there would have been hell to pay if I’d have brought home a 60’s version of Halle Berry for dinner.

The more I’ve learned about PTSD and the problems today’s vets encounter, I wonder how much of the truly bad behavior, sexism and drinking among the “Greatest Generation” was caused by unresolved issues from the Good War.

I loved my mom and dad. I loved many of their friends, especially Bobby, Margret, Bert and Betty among others. I’m okay with their weaknesses and attitudes and I’m glad I can understand that as good as they were, they weren’t perfect.


  1. Great post Bob. Personal but very insightful. I was lucky. My Dad was a Sgt. Major, "Top Kick" and after he did a couple of years as a DI he was sent to New Guinea from whence they engaged in jungle warfare. He and mom had what I considered to be an exemplary love affair. He had been raised by his English mother and her sisters, so he was always being regarded as a gentleman. During the Viet Nam war, he, and mom, were the first of their generation to oppose the war. There was no "generation gap" in our home and I was forever grateful. Mom remained a dedicated Roosevelt Democrat to the very end. Dad was a classic liberal who argued that in the case of the Viet Nam war, it had become a politicians war and was unfair first to the troops. Dad only began to open a bit about his war experience when I insisted as he was dying. Indeed part of the greatest generation.

    1. Your Mom and mine would have gotten along, my mom was a dedicated Roosevelt Democrat, too. My Dad voted for Ike, mom for Stevenson. They both voted for JFK, they were excited that a member of their generation was elected President. My dad's 101st Airborne pal became a Bircher, he dissed Eisenhower one night at a Christmas party, called Ike a "commie dupe". My old man threw him out of the house into a snowbank. They never spoke again. Ike had presented my dad's unit with the Presidential Unit Citation and had visted them after the Varsity operation.