Saturday, May 23, 2015

Beyond the Sales

Memorial Day Weekend, the “unofficial start of summer,” is here. It did not start out as an automobile sales promotion. It began back in 1868 as Decoration Day. The decoration Congress had in mind was flowers for the graves of Civil War dead. By convention, the decorations expanded over the years to include the graves of casualties from later wars, the graves of former service members who were not war casualties, and, eventually, any and all civilian graves as well. Some of this still goes on, but not as much as in the past. People used to visit and decorate cemeteries more often than they commonly do today, not least because more of one’s family tended to be there – and at younger ages. May 30 still was Decoration Day when I was a kid, though the term “Memorial Day” was informally in use, too. Congress officially changed the name to Memorial Day in 1967 and in 1971 specified it would fall on a Monday. Auto sales aside, the primary focus continues to be on the deceased who had served in the military, but others among the departed are not excluded.

I’ve never been big on visiting cemeteries, even though I personally know an alarming number of the permanent residents at the nearby one on Hilltop Road. My mom (d. 2001) always told me, “Give your flowers to people while they’re alive. They don’t know it later.” It always struck me as sound advice. However, if gravesite visits or decorations make some of the living feel better, there surely is no harm in it for them.

On Memorial Days for the past couple of decades there has been an especial emphasis on remembrances of the GI Generation, alias Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.” The GI Generation is diminishing rapidly, constituting less than 1% of the current US population, but they are the Boomers’ parents, and the Boomers still vie with Millennials for being the largest generation in raw numbers; Millennials definitively will surpass Boomers this year thanks to attrition among our aging ranks. So, while we don’t wield as much clout as we did in the 1960s when Boomers were 40% (!) of the population, we still wield a lot, and at present we are very nostalgic about our parents and their contemporaries.

There is irony in this. In the 1960s we were extraordinarily rude to our folks, prompting talk about an unbridgeable “Generation Gap,” which sounds like a geological feature. True, a generation gap exists in every era. In 1935 a 69-year-old HG Wells wrote, “Always, as long as I can remember, there have been a dispute and invidious comparisons between the old and the young.” Nonetheless, we widened it more than usual, blaming our parents for all the faults in society as though they had invented racism, militarism, sexism, and poverty. In fact they were responsible (with the help of the Silent Generation, b. 1929-45) for rolling back all four far more than we ever were able to do when we picked up the reins; if they didn’t go further, it was because they started so much further back. Our attitudes flip-flopped in the 1990s when we began to lose our parents in substantial numbers. Suddenly we got all mushy and started calling them the “Greatest Generation” and all the rest of it. We’ve been at it ever since. Perhaps we’re hoping the Millennials will do the same for us in another decade or two. I wouldn’t count on it.

Also, once we surpassed the age our parents were when we were at our rudest, it dawned on us that they had had youths of which we knew little. We’d always thought of them as middle-aged or older. They were young, of course, and they were pretty wild. The 1940s were a far more revolutionary decade in cultural mores than the 1960s – a fact that was obscured for us by the strange socially conservative reaction that took hold in the 1950s. The teen pregnancy rate, for example, was higher in 1940 than it is today, and the divorce rate of the 1940s wasn’t equaled again until 1973. Women poured into factories and the professions. The music was better. And, of course, there was the War – the one war in which we’re sure we were on the right side. During the war the GI Generation turned long-distance romance into an art form, sometimes literally in the form of bomber nose art.

Following my mom’s dictum, I won’t be putting any flowers over at Hilltop this weekend. Instead, I’ll post some pics of my parents being young in the 1940s. It’s a part of their lives I never knew, but their long distance romance turned out to be a fortuitous one for me. All the photos are from 1945 when they were 19 and 17.

On the 5 Inch

Liberty Ship "Mary Ashley Townsend"

Mom's Locket

Vamping it up for the locker pic


  1. Nice pics of your parents, and I'd agree with your mother about the flowers. My mother didn't care for flowers much as gifts either. She liked them in the yard and such. I think more than anything she was very cost aware due to her background and the Great Depression.

    Talking about the younger generation not respecting us as much as we did are parents is pretty true--at least I felt some of that from the employees I used to work with. Though it was more the exception for the most part. I'm reminded of the John Sebastian song, The Younger Generation.

    1. Boomers have voted ourselves substantial chunks of later generations' earnings, which probably diminishes their affection for us somewhat.

  2. I take it your dad was in the Navy. What did he do, and did he have war stories too?

    1. Yes, technically he was Navy under the peculiar and confusing arrangements of WW2. He was in the US Merchant Marine which was under the Department of Commerce, but the merchant fleet had been militarized at the outbreak of war. At that time Coast Guard personnel became officers, petty officers, gun crews, and some other crewmembers on the ships while many of the deck hands remained civilian. The Coast Guard in turn became an arm of the US Navy for the duration. So, my dad’s papers say “Coast Guard” but when discharged in 1946 he retained a rank of LT JG in the US Navy Reserve. My sister’s birth the day before North Korea invaded the South was all that prevented him being recalled to the active Navy in 1950 – he was exempted under the rules of the day. Most of the time in the service he was first Bo’sun, a petty officer (equivalent to sergeant in the army) overseeing the deck crews. He didn’t get officer rank until near the end of his service.

      He sailed pretty much everywhere: India, Africa, Italy, Russia, and Normandy on D-Day. So, yeah, there were lots of stories. I drew on some of them for my short story Alyusha at my “Richards Mirror” site, about an old veteran flashing back while on a cruise to Murmansk.

  3. And where does Gen X fit in all this? Well we are pretty convinced everyone is screwed up anyway so it doesn't really matter much. ;)

    You make an interesting point about the "greatest generation" concept that started up i in the 90s. While I thought the sentiment was nice, it did seem rather dismissive of countless other people (but as a Gen Xer, I figured that was just par the course). But your reasoning for that sudden increase in all things WWII related in the 1990s does make sense. We saw it in films, especially with "Saving Private Ryan", and even in video games like the "Medal of Honor" series. I was always struck by why WWII became THE setting for all first person shooter games in the 90s.

    1. One could do worse than Gen X's style of merry nihilism.

      Yes, there are lots of generations that encountered History (capital "H" intended) and faced it in a noteworthy way. The Civil War generation and the 18th century ones come to mind -- or for that matter the 5th century BC.