The inspiration, I recall him saying in an interview, was his own father, and the contemporaries of his father. That is, guys who had grown up during the appallingly deprived years of the Great Depression and then who shipped out overseas during World War Two – a hell of a lot of them to never return.
Tough nuts, them guys.
When the book was published, even though it was a worthy and well-considered project, I thought the title was maybe a bit gratuitous and possibly insulting to other generations who’d also had to face adversity.
But Brokaw attested that he was addressing that generation that was still alive in many cases and to suggest how astonished he was in terms of what they’d survived – at least those who did survive.
Then, this week, I’ve been watching a number of episodes of Ken Burns’ brilliant epic The War on PBS, and the wisdom and gratitude of the Brokaw book came back to me. Yep, they were tough nuts, them guys. And tough women, too, who either waited at home for that dreaded telegram as they tended their Victory gardens and tried to fabricate tolerable meals out of rationed ‘everything.’
That’s not to mention the women who worked in munitions plants and shipyards and gave spawn to the iconic Rosie the Riveter.
And tough kids, too. Kids who didn’t know if Daddy would be coming home, and if he did, what kind of shape was he going to be in?
And tough families, too; the fabric attempting, sometimes vainly, to hold the unit together. My maternal grandparents had seven children. And of that seven, five of them served, three of the five being female and who were army nurses, one of them slogging through the mud (blood and guts) of the soldiers as they slogged up the boot of Italy. Blessedly the entire family came home. Unscathed? Nobody can be unscathed by that shit.
So, yes, I think they were the greatest generation and I doff my hat in gratitude for what was done. My old man interrupted his education and left his pretty young bride aside for a couple of years while he went off with the Canadian Navy. He came back. The marriage survived. Sort of. To be honest it was always pretty compromised.
A favorite uncle was in the US Navy and went right through all the filth, blood, muck, mire and jungle rot of that hideous campaign, only to be hit by a ‘Dear John’ letter from his missus. In later years he would never take his wife on a Hawaiian vacation because he’d shipped out of Pearl Harbor and the sight of palm trees were gag-inducing to him.
Another uncle went back to university after he’d served as an army infantryman. He dropped out after three months because his classes were filled with ‘children’. He was a ‘man’. And indeed he was, even though he was the same age.
Another uncle came back a full-bore drunk. He later got sober, but ruined a big chunk of his life, as well as that of his wife and his children.
And so on, and so on.
Don’t assume this is in any way meant to demean those who’ve served in later conflicts, and still are in some of wretched parts of the world, and who come back as shells of what once they were.
I doff my hat to any who have served, and since I live in a military base town, I know many who have, and know of some who have died, been brain-injured, or have come back as vestiges of what once they were.
All I am saying is, when I look at my life, I never have had to face the shit my dad and his contemporaries did. And, amazingly, a lot of them survived into ripe old ages and rebuilt their lives.
So, thanks, and I am comfortable with seeing them as indeed the Greatest Generation.