Last Lessons From The Greatest Generation

Today would have been my father’s 100th birthday. He was born in a small town in central Alabama on July 30, 1920. He did not grow up poor, but nor was he landed gentry. His father was the local agent for the Central of Georgia Railroad. His mother, who was always known as “Miss Lucy,” also worked for the Railway Express Agency, the FedEx of that long-ago time. Both were hardworking with something of an entrepreneurial streak. The world of Alabama in the 20’s and 30’s is one that now seems incredibly remote, virtually ancient history. Horses were commonplace. The depression permeated everything. His family included many who had lived through the Civil War, including veterans. And, in that time of America’s apartheid, there were also plenty of people who had been born in slavery.


My father went to the Naval Academy in the summer of 1939, two months before Hitler invaded Poland. His class graduated a year early in 1942, and he was then at sea almost continuously for the remainder of World War II. He married my mother in 1944. They only had a few days’ notice that he was coming, so the wedding planning was quick. He went on to serve in the Navy until he retired in 1973. He served on a cruiser in the Korean War. He commanded four ships. He was even in Vietnam on a couple of occasions. My father had many tales to tell, most of which only came out late in his life.

That generation is now almost all gone. My father has been for 25 years. We talk a lot about the “greatest generation.” It sometimes seems like a bit of a cliché, in fact. But it is not. They grew up in times that were truly hard, economically and culturally. Opportunities were more limited, especially for people of color. Discrimination was legal and pervasive. In the depression of the 30’s, our nation and form of government came very close to collapsing all together. And when this generation came of age, they fought a war – a long, bloody war that left few families untouched. At the peak of the war, the military numbered almost 13 million people, which is especially huge when you consider that was about 10% of the total population.

Fast forward to 2020: These are troubling times right now. I often wonder what my father might have to say about our current situation. Like most career military, his politics didn’t always fit the neat boxes by which we want to define people. For example, those who have actually seen war often have a wariness of it that is almost pacifism. They know what it means to be put in harm’s way, and they are accordingly averse to doing so without a compelling reason. I could offer many more examples, some quite humorous too.

My father was always sympathetic to me as a young lawyer – and I think he was proud of what I did - but it was also clear that he considered my vocation to be just “civilian stuff.” He was right, too. There is nothing life or death about being a civil trial lawyer. The problems confronting us now are real, but they pale in comparison to what was faced by that truly Greatest Generation. That generation had a perspective that is sorely lacking now. Maybe we should look back at them and try a bit harder to follow and live up to their example.

Image by Daniel Foster

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