When the Graves Registration boys searched the bodies of GI’s on the D-Day beaches, and later in the European forests, they often found photographs to be put in the collected effects. Not of Betty Grable or Chili Williams, but of Mom and Pop, parents of the dead. Which broaches the question, “Which greatest generation?”
Was it really those who fought the war, or might it have been those who raised those soldiers, sailors and airmen, and did it through the most trying times of the century? It was a generation born just as the century turned. Chances were good these fathers of those we now trumpet as “the greatest” themselves served in a strange expeditionary force that put Americans in European trenches where gas was employed and combat was often hand-to-hand. It was a war whose reward was not a GI bill for higher education but an honorable discharge and a bonus march for those who sought a little more than “well-done.” It was a war now nearly forgotten but which hatched the predatory monster that would put the sons of those who fought it on the beach in 1944.
The 1920s stunned this forgotten generation with a sexual revolution, new dances, jazz, and a dizzying stock market. “We’re In the Money” didn’t mean we were rich, it meant our stock options had achieved the strike price. In 1929 per capita income in cities averaged $750 a year. In rural areas, it was $273. On those meager returns the forgotten generation raised the one to be called one day “the greatest.”
THERE WERE MORE hardships to come. As the bubble burst, the rate of unemployment soared to 24.9 percent in 1933. And it was still 17.2 percent when war preparations spurred industry in 1939. Nature conspired with sour economics. Oppressive heat lay on the heartland through the ’30s. Winds tore at the topsoil. The “Dust Bowl” saw the Joads leave for California. The FBI had to call on Texas Rangers to bring to bay gangsters like Dillinger in 1934. Through it all the generation to be greatest was succored. Their neighborhoods were safe enough to play at large from dawn to dusk, and somehow at day’s end there was always something, perhaps not princely, but something to eat.
There was labor organizing strife, lay-offs, and sometimes violence. Vacations? Maybe a short drive someplace. Talking movies came along, but even they could not supplant some radio favorites. In Denver, the theater management would hold up the film projection as a radio on stage played that week’s edition of “Amos ‘N Andy.” “Bank Night” became an incentive to attend movies: a give-away of a couple hundred dollars to some luck attendee, usually on Wednesday night.
West of the Mississippi, only large cities had radio stations but they were powerful, clear-channel outlets whose beams hung like stars in the western night. News broadcasts were infrequent, but the information imparted only added to a sense of foreboding. Were the banks still open? What had the Japanese done to Nanking?
The parents of the greatest would put their growing children to bed and talk. Talk was cheap and a major form of entertainment once the favorite radio show was ended. The National Recovery Act. Well, the court took care of that. Razor blades: which was really better, the thicker Gillette blue blades, or the new thin red ones? Had Ruth really pointed to the spot where he was to hit the home run?
For many there was no time for talk. The unemployed hit the road, by rail and by thumb out on the highway. Hotel clerks would round them up in the lobby and recommend them to the few remaining traveling salesmen who weren’t really selling anything, but trying to keep the territory “open” for the better days to come. They would come, but at a price. They would call it World War 2. It saved the unemployment rate of 17.2.
THE GREATEST GENERATION left home with photographs of the now-forgotten one, Mother and Father. If they were lucky, they might keep a blue star in their window, a marker for the absent child-now-man. For some 400,000 there could be a gold star, but not many wanted to do that. In the midst of the terror of not knowing, things like gas rationing and meat shortages were insignificant.
When it was over, the greatest generation went to school, and went on the move. An estimated 20 percent of America was to move every other year in post-war America. The forgotten generation often got letters and phone calls and they too started keeping photographs, of grand children.
We were reminded all this past weekend of the exploits of the greatest generation, men and women in their 80’s now. If asked about greatness, however, I’ll bet each and every one would reflect a moment on the couple that gave them life, and managed to keep them alive through a long and trying time of the century now ended. A forgotten generation whose greatness was perseverance. An attribute that came in handy on a beach.