Two years ago, on Memorial Day weekend, my family and I were enjoying a wonderful day together at the St. Louis Zoo. Amidst all the sights and sounds, I spotted an elderly couple that stopped me dead in my tracks. The one thing that captured my attention and distinguished them from the rest of the teeming masses was the navy blue ball cap which identified this gentleman as a World War II veteran. A wave of different emotions washed over me as I watched them slowly make their way through the crowd. I wanted to approach them, shake his hand, and express my gratitude, but what would I say? Somehow the standard “thank you for your service” felt ridiculously inadequate when I considered all that they had given. In the end, I just stood there and offered my silent respect. To me, they represented the best we ever were, a remnant of The Greatest Generation.
I recently asked my father why he thought that particular generation had the ability to sacrifice so deeply and achieve so much. Without hesitation, he replied simply, “Adversity.” Although we try to avoid it at all cost, nothing else forges strength of character quite like trial by fire. Surviving the years of hardship during the Great Depression had created within them resilience and fortitude. They possessed a determined spirit that could, and would, see them through anything. They became living proof that, while tough times don’t last, tough people do.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor propelled us into WWII, our entire nation was moved to action. We were truly the United States of America, and no sacrifice or burden would be so great as to deter them from the nobility of the task at hand. As over 16 million answered the call to military duty, bravely enduring the horrors of war, everyone back home was eager to do their part, and do without. When it became necessary to ration food, flower beds became Victory Gardens. Housewives traded aprons for coveralls, and headed off to work in the factories and munitions plants. Service flags were hung proudly in their windows, a blue star representing each husband and son fighting “over there.” As the official letters came expressing a nation’s condolences and gratitude, the blue stars were replaced with gold ones, signifying to passers by that they had given their all. And when the enemy at last surrendered, everyone celebrated the Victory as if it were their own.
Yes, they truly were the Greatest Generation, but I don’t think adversity alone defined them. Had they not already possessed something of that greatness within, then surely the refining fire of adversity would have consumed them. Long before the world turned upside down, they were a people of faith. They had been raised by the Golden rule, and believed that the virtues of integrity and hard work, decency and charity, were the standards by which individuals, and society were expected to conform. Serving God and Country, and Loving thy neighbor as thyself, were more than ideals for them to consider…it was who they were.
Looking back at where we’ve come from, it’s evident that our current culture pales in comparison. We seem to think that a life of ease and comfort is our national birthright. Having to wait in line more than 15 minutes for our Starbuck’s or losing our Wi-Fi connection is a really bad day. In 70 short years we have lost the belief that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”, and have sadly become a “me first” generation. We’ve been at war now for almost 15 years, and except for the military families directly involved, the rest of us are largely unaffected. For many Americans, “clicking like and share if you support the troops” is about as patriotic as it gets.
In this presidential election year, we are once again called upon to select a leader who will fix everything. They all claim to be up to the challenge. One even promises he will make America great again. Although I believe in our process, I find both their claims and our expectations laughable at best. None of us can even agree on what the problems are, much less work together to find a solution. There are certainly many issues to deal with: the economy, national debt, immigration, health care, racial tension, education, global warming, public toilet policies…the list goes on and on. Maybe all these are but mere symptoms. I think perhaps America has a heart problem. If we are to find a solution, if we are to ever make America great again, maybe the answer lies behind us rather than ahead. Maybe in this case those who study history just might be able to repeat it. we could do worse.
They were, after all, the Greatest Generation, the best we ever were.