The Greatest Generation: A tough act to follow

U.S. infantrymen off the Normandy coast in 1944, part of what Tom Brokaw called the Greatest Generation.
U.S. infantrymen off the Normandy coast in 1944, part of what Tom Brokaw called the Greatest Generation. (AP)
Posted: August 19, 2012

So my friend - let's call him Ceisler - and I were leaving the Har Zion synagogue a few weeks ago. We were there for the funeral of Joe Smukler, 84, a Philadelphia trial lawyer who, along with his wife, Connie, had dedicated his life to saving oppressed Jews from the Soviet Union.

As speaker after speaker attested to Joe's transformative good deeds, just as stunning were his small acts of kindness. For weeks I heard of his mentoring and generosity. When I ran into Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, I learned that, at age 12, he was singled out by Joe for his pen-pal efforts to connect with young Jews trapped in the Soviet Union. "He was one of the people who inspired me to go into public service," Shapiro said.

After the service, Ceisler and I were silent as we walked to our cars. "You know, every time I go to one of these," Ceisler said, meaning the funeral of a member of what broadcaster Tom Brokaw has dubbed the Greatest Generation, "and I listen to what these guys did, I feel like our generation has lived small lives by comparison."

We're losing these Greatest Generation guys, those born between 1900 and 1930, at a rate of nearly 1,500 per day. You see them walking among us, in their worn-out cardigans and members-only jackets, and it never truly dawns on you just what they did - until the funerals. And that's when you realize the degree to which those of us who followed have come up short.

They were the good guys who saved the world from fascism and then turned around and rebuilt the countries they had defeated. They created the greatest economy known to man - one based on values of shared sacrifice and reward. They believed that progress stemmed from our collective efforts, not from narrow interest-group wrangling or the Ayn Rand go-it-alone playbook.

As a group, they weren't perfect. They tolerated McCarthyism too long and were slow to come around on a host of "isms" - race among them. Smukler's accomplishments were writ large, but so many of his generation's were, though quieter, similarly heroic. I know because I was raised by one.

Bill Platt, who will turn 86 tomorrow, enlisted in the Navy in World War II - simply because it was the right thing to do. He's self-deprecating about his service - "I kept the shores of Seattle safe from Japanese attack" - but in everything he and so many of his era did thereafter, he may as well have been a bomber pilot. They made successes of themselves, but didn't then shut the door behind them; instead, they defined themselves in terms of their duty to others.

Think of it: Unlike today, paying your taxes in the world they made in the postwar boom wasn't a hot-button political issue; it was simply what you did out of a sense of obligation to your neighbor.

They're moralists, these guys - no matter the issue, my pop and his cronies see things in terms of black and white, right and wrong. Those of us in the baby boom generation that followed have been cursed by the moral relativism bug. We settle, and we cut corners, and we tolerate mediocrity because everything is complicated and nothing is ever anyone's fault.

Even now, as they age, guys like my dad are outraged at both big and small injustices. Cranky now, when he gets junk mail, he'll pop the return envelope back into the mail - sans postage - with the sender's address in the space where his would normally go. "This way, they have to pay the postage," he'll boast. Another friend, whose father fought on Okinawa, tells a similar story: Toward the end of his life, his dad, who found success in the food business, went into an Acme and shoplifted a dog leash, pulling it out when he was safely back in his son's car.

"Dad, what did you do?" the astonished son asked. "You stole a dog leash?"

"This is their biggest-markup item," his father responded. "That'll teach the SOBs."

God bless that sense of hair-trigger moralism - it's what built our world. And how tough were these guys? Last winter, when my dad was in the hospital, he told his nurse that, six years ago, his bladder stopped working and he had self-catheterized ever since. "It's no big deal," he said when she recoiled. "When's the last time you bought a product that lasted 80 years?"

It's a pretty lopsided scorecard, fellow boomers. The Greatest Generation beats us not only in toughness, but also in common sense, humility, duty, and stoicism. But, hey, at least we make really cool gadgets.

"They didn't exercise, they worked around the house . . .," Brett and Kate McKay write of the Greatest Generation on theartofmanliness.com. "They didn't mull over which appliance better suited their personality and image, they just bought the machine that worked the best. They didn't think about how to get things done, they just got 'em done."

Sadly, I find myself going to a lot of these funerals these days. Like Ceisler, whose father was a self-made success and a veteran, I come away feeling small by comparison - but also inspired to try to think bigger and do better. And here's the kicker: I tried to talk to my dad about this topic, and he scoffed when he heard the phrase Greatest Generation.

"Let me tell you who the greatest generation really was," he said. "It was our fathers and mothers, who instilled values in us. They were the ones."

Spoken like a true member of the Greatest Generation.


Larry Platt's column appears regularly in Currents. He can be reached at larry.platt@gmail.com.

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