Over the past week or so, a great deal has been said and done regarding the efforts of that critical segment of our society that has come to be known as The Greatest Generation. I am of course referring to those men and women who battled the twin demons of the Great Depression and the Second World War and then returned to build their lives in post-war America. As a baby-boomer, it was my privilege to grow up in a world that had been shaped by these men and women.
I was watching television the other night. The evening news was broadcasting live from the World War Two monument in our nation?s capitol. The thoughts and remembrances of a number of veterans from that war formed the central theme for the show. The dedication of this long-overdue monument has been a particularly moving experience for me. I ponder the memory of my father and how much he would have enjoyed all of this.
During one later part of that show, I noted that Tom Brokaw was interviewing Senator Bob Dole about his memories of World War Two. The senator spoke little of the horrible combat that robbed him of the use of one arm. He spoke volumes about the dedication and courage of the people who fought that war.
When Brokaw asked him to speak about the differences between the home-front population of World War II and the demeanor of today?s American citizens during the Iraq War, Senator Dole paused for a long moment. He then stated quite simply and sincerely that it looked as though Americans of today had lost the will to make sacrifices.
The Senator went on to speak of the various forms of rationing that people in the United States had to endure. There were restrictions on a wide variety of daily essentials, ranging from tires, to gasoline, to silk stockings. He noted that all of these sacrifices were made so that the people fighting the war would have what they needed to defeat the forces of evil running rampant in the world.
He closed by saying that it appeared as though people just did not want to give up anything to support the men and women battling the forces of evil in the world.
Why is this? My parents were, by all accounts, a fairly tough lot. My mom and dad grew to adulthood in the crucible of the depression. My English grandfather was a weaver at the rug mill in Freehold and my Polish grandfather was a stationary fireman at a hospital in East Orange. Both of my grandmothers stayed at home to raise their children and supplemented the family larder by cleaning other folk?s homes.
By all accounts, the 1930?s were a truly tough time within which to live. Money was in short supply, but at least there was work for my forbearers. Even through the periodic layoffs, my grandparents were able to keep body and soul together. I can recall my late father speaking of the sugar sandwiches he ate during those tough times. I can recall my mother?s stories of working in various factories in Newark. I can recall her speaking of walking across the city to save the cost of bus fare.
Then the war came. My dad joined the Army while he was still a senior at Freehold High School, so he had already been a soldier for more than a year and a half when the war came. By all accounts he met my mother at a wedding in Newark some time during 1942. They were married in January of 1943.
When it comes to sacrifice, my parents were really no different from others of their generation. They had a short honeymoon, and then dad shipped out for Europe. He and mom were separated for nearly two and a half years. Mom continued to work at the factory and save money for the time when dad would return. They just did what they had to do to play their part in the big picture of a world at war.
Mom endured the loneliness as best she could. I can only imagine the pain in her heart when the telegram came telling her that dad had been wounded in combat in Italy. But he lived to return home in August of 1945. All of his front line combat time had allowed him to accumulate enough points to return home just before VJ Day.
Times were tough for dad and mom when I came along in 1947. One more mouth to feed and another person clamoring for space in my grandparent?s Newark home. Not long after my birth, mom and dad returned to Freehold. Dad worked a series of jobs, searching for that one job where he could spend a career. Mom helped to make ends meet by working as a waitress.
They were very careful to use their resources wisely, many times sacrificing things so that my brother and I would have what we needed. As Tom Brokaw said during the dedication of the World War Two Memorial, they learned more to live without than to live with.
I myself can remember the Thursday night meals of melted cheese sauce on toast with chopped up hard-boiled eggs. I looked forward to it, as though it was a delicacy to be enjoyed and savored as a reward for all that was good in life. Only later on in my life did my father share with me the fact that he and mom usually ran short on money on Thursday, and that the toast with cheese sauce was an inexpensive way to feed the family. Go figure. I was a part of the family sacrifice and never new it. Wow!
The point of this history lesson is real simple. I grew to adulthood in a household where my parents worked hard to keep me from experiencing the hardships through which they had been forced to live. Like a great many members of the Greatest Generation, they wanted us to live a better, fuller life than they had during the depression. Look how my generation has repaid them.
We now have a world where the motto of our nation has become, ?? It?s all about me.? How did this happen? I guess that I have had a hand in it, like a great many of my baby boomer buddies. I have done my share by trying to give my kids more than I had as a child. Perhaps it is human nature to want the best for your own flesh and blood, but at some point I think that we must all shoulder part of the burden for the common good.
Maybe not, though. As I look around me in the world today, I see many who want nothing more than to be given everything they wish and then left alone. They have no sense of community. They have no sense of belonging to anything. Just look at the decline in membership among a wide variety of civic and fraternal organizations and associations.
It was not that way in the past. The reasons are many, but the results are undeniable. Two income families are the norm in many places. A great deal of time is spent insuring that we can afford what we need. There is much more to do now. Why go out when you can stay at home and watch something on television. We have slowly but surely become a nation of individuals.
It was not that way in years gone by. There was the American dream and people truly bought into that concept, if my research is any indication. People were grateful for what they had and looked to give back a little bit, as a way of saying thank you for all that this nation afforded them. The land of the free and the home of the brave had great meaning then.
During the Second World War many millions were drafted into the military. Left to their own devices, they probably would not have chosen to undergo the privations of service in the military. Many paid the ultimate price for their service. If they had their druthers, I am fairly certain that they would have loved to marry that girl back home, get a job at the local factory, buy that house on the corner, have children, enjoy life and the grow old in their time. Sadly, they never had that opportunity.
The same thing had happened earlier in our history during World War I. And the draft continued through the Korean War and on into the Vietnam War. People were called upon to serve and they did. Sadly, it was my generation that got the ball rolling down hill. I will not comment on the protests, for I know precious little about them. For you see, I was overseas serving in Alaska, the Philippine Islands, and Vietnam while all of that was playing out on the streets of America.
I am afraid that the concept of sacrifice has been rendered marginal by the rush to greed that has embraced our nation. Everyone is so busy looking out for themselves that when someone makes a sacrifice of any kind, it is viewed as quaint. There are even those who dismiss those of us who believe in hard work and sacrifice as ?suckers.? These people turn my stomach.
Our nation is so short of real heroes these days that society has been forced to place our overpaid professional athletes upon pedestals far higher than most deserve. How hard is it to suck it up and keep going when you are making $5,000,000 a season for playing a kid?s game?
Think about it my friends. Very little has been coming out of the Iraq War lately about the bravery of our fighting forces. I guess the media would rather smack the troops of our country around than celebrate the good works of our troops. I have been fortunate enough to receive news of bravery among our fighting troops.
Brave men are still going in harms way for their buddies. They see their duty and the give their all to do it. Men and women are still dying for what they believe in. I recall the recent story about a Marine Lieutenant who stormed an enemy force to protect his men. I bet you did not see that one on CNN. Fortunately, there are still brave men and women willing to fight and die for what they believe in.
So it is for those of us in the fire and emergency service world. We are the thin blue line that stands between our nation and oblivion. We have taken up the battle to keep our fellow citizens safe.
As we approach the 60th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion on June 6, 1944, let us redouble our efforts to set the example for our nation. As the grainy images of that long-ago day flicker across our television screens, let us renew our pledge to be there for our communities.
Just as those men went forth to war to preserve freedom, let us all remember that we in the fire service are usually all that stands between our communities and devastation. We go forth to do battle on a daily basis. They sacrificed their youth and their lives for America. If there is a sacrifice that must be made today, it will probably be our fire and EMS people that are out there making it.
Let us all step forward and shoulder our share of the burden. Let no one weaken in their resolve. Let future generations say that the fire service was capable of making the sacrifices to see that our service and our nation survive. To paraphrase Senator Dole?s comments in Washington last week at the dedication of the World War II Memorial, I would suggest that we all work hard to serve as the latest links in a chain of courage that is older than our nation itself.