Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Great Generation

As I get older the "great generation" gets really older. In fact, they are dying off quickly. We'll soon be counting down as the last few survivors of the great middle years of the 20th Century pass on from this world.
This is the generation that raised my generation. We had a front row seat to their accomplishments, moments of glory and the stories they told of their younger years. I feel like I really understand that generation much better than my own. It's kinda like having a better idea of what your partner looks like than yourself. We watched with wonder as the events perpetrated by "the great generation" unfolded.

Now, don't get me wrong, this generation was my parents. The first time I heard them called "The Great Generation" I wanted to puke. I've had a few good reasons for despising these people and viewing them as a bunch of cold and unquestioning bunch of proles, but that's just a little part of the story. Try and look beyond your own prejudices.

There are three really monumental things that I believe the people of the 40s (that's how I've always thought of them) accomplished. 1) They fought a huge war in a decisive and clearly articulated manner. 2) They accomplished some level of racial desegregation and 3) They put a man on the Moon.

There is one other event that shaped their lives even though they had nothing to do with the occurrence of that event; the Great Depression.
The Great Depression(they always just called it "The Depression") taught them that everything wasn't just going to be there for them and that they would have to work for whatever they got. The Depression saw millions of American men take to the highways in search of sustenance to support themselves and their families. I remember my mother and grandmother talking vividly about the events of the Depression that had occurred only recently on their timelines. How men would come to my grandmother's door asking to do some bit of work just for something to eat. My grandfather always had a job on the railroad, so they believed their house was marked as one where the homeless and transient men could get something to eat. They would tell me of how there would sometimes be a few fellow sitting on the porch eating a piece of bread and butter or jelly or some soup. They loved to tell the story of how my grandfather came home one winter day without his new coat and explained to my grandmother that the guy he saw down at the train station needed it more than he did since he had another old one in the closet.
This was the spirit within which the Great Generation often operated and the one within which I was taught to exist.

World War II changed everything for them. Suddenly, as they entered the 40s, what appeared like a turning of the economy and for once in their life a little prosperity, turned into a nightmare of catastrophic proportions. Hitler and the Japanese become the complete focus of their anger and wrath. On the home-front, people learned to sacrifice without question and to support the war effort at all cost, because afterall, everyone's husband, son, brother, uncle or cousin were off fighting and many many of them were dying. Not using your car, having rations for things like flour, milk, coffee and petroleum products seemed trivial in light of how the young men of their generation were sacrificing. There was no questioning of authority by this generation in such circumstances. They sacrificed, they fought and they were victorious in a clear and concise manner that everyone could understand, everyone felt a part of and everyone could mark with a specific day when it happened. VE and VJ day lives in the hearts of all from that generation.
The great generation came home from war and set about to created a great nation and a better world. Sure, there were horrible things that happened and they certainly had their share of transgressions, but for the most part they wanted what was best for the country and supported the common good.

Some might argue that the civil rights movement is not something attributable to the great Generation. I disagree. It occurred during the years when they were making things happen. Dr. Martin Luther King is given credit for really making the civil rights movement happen. He was a member of the Great Generation. I believe I could rest my case right there. Yea, it was members of the Great Generation who fought AGAINST civil rights and desegregation, but it was also member of their generation who fought harder FOR civil rights and desegregation. People like Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, Edgar D, Nixon, Medgar Evers and Dr. King and their many hundreds of counter parts and thousands of supporters in the NAACP, CORE, SCLC and other such organization were all members of the Great Generation. Lyndon Johnson, the U.S. president and white man who most prominently stood up and supported these heros of civil rights and their agenda, was a member of the Great Generation. This history is sometimes viewed as the core of Black History in America, but it is also the history of America in general and the things that happened under the watch of the Great Generation.

I love space and I love everything that happened in the 60s as man finally broke the bounds of gravity and traveled to a world outside our own. It was a fascinating time, perhaps one of the most fascinating times in history. It was an endeavor that, while fueled by a competition with another country to become the dominant power on Earth, had an overtone of overall human achievement and something done "in peace for all mankind." It was the Great Generation that accomplished these amazing feats of human activity.
It's hard to imagine the determination and creativity that it took to send men to the Moon and return them safely and not just once, but six times onto the surface, twice into lunar orbit and once in a heroic recovery of three men who had serious equipment malfunctions, looped around the moon and successfully came back to Earth. The steps that they took to get there were in themselves each amazing feats of discovery that pushed the frontiers of space farther and farther out until finally, they landed on the Moon.
I like to focus on the great astronauts who made the flights (if I name a few great ones I will leave out too many who were just as great), but there were others just as heroic. Heros like Max Faget who designed early NASA spacecraft or Werner Von Braun who was the greatest rocket scientist that ever lived and put the first American satellite into orbit and designed and built the mighty Saturn V rocket for the sole purpose of getting men from planet Earth to the Moon. Behind every larger than life hero of the Great Generation's space program there were tens of thousands of technicians and engineers who built the thousands of parts that went into all the various spacecraft and test facilities. The American space program from Mercury to Apollo was perhaps the greatest achievement of human endeavor and technological development. Without the support and committment of all the American tax payers, these accomplishments would never have occurred.
The American space program gave the world and the next generation a huge basket of new technologies to exploit. What happened to it? Not much. The next generation just didn't have the will, the drive or the integrity to make use of the gifts they were given. We have squandered away the technologies on nothing more than consumer goods and the technologies required for a super class of capitalists to slowly accumulate more and more of our national resources within the sphere of their own domain. "for all mankind" was simply a flash-in-the-pan ideal that went nowhere when given to the next generation. Our generation hasn't even left Earth orbit! Our own lobbs into space have been done with the equipment and technologies handed down to us from the previous generation. Even NASAs latest plans for putting men back on the Moon as simply reworked designs inherited from the 60s wizards. Such is the case for most technologies within our technological society. We just don't have the ingenuity and purposeful behaviors excersized by the past generation. Don't believe it? Take a look at the current crop of astronauts and compare them to the great ones who pioneered space flight. 'nuf said.

But this post isn't about the shortcomings of my generation. I don't really have a clear picture of my own generation. I'll leave that up to my children's generation to comment on, but one thing is for sure, the accomplishments we can take credit for are minor postscripts compared to how the Great Generation performed.

Hell, even environmental awareness and the movement that brought on the clean-up of our nation was brought about and nurtured by the Great Generation. Rachel Carson was a member of that generation. It was the generation that started the Environmental Protection Agency in this country and enacted the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. They acted upon the ideals of Aldo Leopold and caused a great turnabout of culture. Remember the 60s and all the protesting us hippies did and social experimentation we performed? Yup, the Great Generation enabled all of that. I'd have been sitting in my local town park smoking dope with the rest of the slack jawed yokels on the $5 my mother would give me to "go to the movies" if my father hadn't handed me $50 and said "go do what you have to do" when I asked him if I could go to Washington. That took a lot of integrity for a man raised on unquestionable patriotism.

What's my point? I don't know, but think about the people around you who are in their 70s and 80s now. They probably experienced times and events that you can't imagine. Next time you get a chance to talk to someone like that, ask them about their life. Find out what they went though, where they've been and how they did the things they did and then tell your children about it. If we don't at least pass along the experiences of that generation, what will we have 50 years from now?

I know, someone is going to take great pride in pointing out the transgressions of the generation I am venerating in this post. OK, have at it. I doubt you are going to come up with anything that isn't floating around in my brain right now. Humanity is a ruthless set of players and there is a thread of inhumanity and downright barbarism that flows through every generation. That's not what I'm talking about, so can't I point out the positive aspects of these great people?

I'd love to hear the positive events and accomplishments of those who YOU know from the Great Generation.

See y'all down the barnyard.


Tequila Mockingbird said...

just wait until my generation does stuff. oh wait, we are all too apathetic.

C.Rag said...

My Grandmother worked herself through college during the depression, eloped w/my grandfather after he got drafted in WWII, & worked in weapons factory for the war effort.

I fear for my generation. Look at the water shortages that Atlanta is facing. We over consume. We have never had to cut back. With the recession word swirling around & droughts, we may be force to experience what my grandparents went through.

SagaciousHillbilly said...

c.rag, It will be worse.
TequiMo, I can wait for another generation, but I suspect that's all I'll do.

SagaciousHillbilly said...

c.rag, that's an awesome story. Your g'mother must have been some woman. I hope you knew her and were influenced by her strength and perseverance.
What did she do after the war?

Phoebe Fay said...

I am inherently distrustful of "great generation" talk. They were a generation shaped by events. Perhaps because the primary influences - the Depression and WWII - were such huge events, we see them as something special. But, they were like every other group of humans. Some noble, some base, most somewhere in between.

Both marvelous and terrible things happened under their watch. Just as marvelous and terrible things happen now. It's all a journey.

C.Rag said...

She taught 4th grade & was a prominent member of her community. She kept her parents farm up too. She milked the cows every morning before she went to school to teach. My grandfather worked for B&O so he was in & out, so she ran a lot of things.

When she was on her death bed, many of her students from her 30 year teaching career came to see her & told stories how she made them love reading.

Her diligence was what she gave to me

SagaciousHillbilly said...

Ms. Fay,
I'm not implying they as individuals were any more perfect that any other generation, simply that they saw opportunity and ceased it like no other generation. There is no comparison between the things tht they made happen and the things our generation has made happen. Thier "marvelous things" outshone every generation since the beginning of our national history.
Name something that our generation has done that even begins to compares to one of the three accomplishments I mentioned. I could name three more that outshine any of our generation's accomplishments.

Sara Sue said...

I can name three:
a. Whip Out the Wangs Wednesday
b. Beefcake Friday
c. Totally Twat Tuesday


Sara Sue said...

Wait! I can name FOUR ...
d. Punch in the Face Awards

Phoebe Fay said...

Mapping the human genome
The Internet

SagaciousHillbilly said...

Ms. Fay. Sorry, but "the internet" has been around for a long time. It was originally designed and implimented in the early 70s as a data hiway for military applicaitions. Done by the 40s people.

Maping the human genome was an excersize in perseverence ultimately accomplished by our generation, but performed using all the tools developed by the previous generation.