When you live in a locality where your family has roots, there are reminders all around of those who are gone. I live five miles from where my mother grew up on Talmadge Road, five miles from where I grew up on Main Street, four miles from the chapel where my parents were married, three miles from my old prep school (quite a few classmates have departed), and eight miles from the property on Schoolhouse Lane where for several years I lived next door to my sister Sharon. I have a 1941 photo of my mom standing in front of the drug store I still frequent – still named Robinson’s. I regularly pass Hilltop Cemetery where my parents and Sharon are buried – not out of sentimentality: it’s just on the way to town. I live in a house my parents built on a street my dad developed.
Precisely because the traces are everywhere, one becomes accustomed to them to the point of generally not seeing them – except when something else prickles one’s synapses. On this occasion it was a glance at the calendar. (Yes, I still have a paper calendar on the wall above my computer monitor.) My dad, the senior Richard Bellush, would have been 90 today.
The remaining members of the GI Generation are few and dwindling, but the mark they have left is outsized. Tom Brokaw’s sobriquet “the Greatest Generation” might be a little gushy, but the generation certainly was a fateful one. As a matter of definition, it comprises those old enough to have served in WW2 (even if in fact they didn’t) but too young also to have served in WW1 or to have had their youths shaped by it. This makes 1928 the last birth year that would qualify and 1908 about the earliest. They followed the so-called Lost Generation. The GI Generation grew up in the Depression or lived through it as youths, and then experienced the calamity of World War 2. By 1946 most had had more excitement, uncertainty, and terror than they ever wanted to see again. When the war was over, most wanted normality: a secure job, a cozy marriage, and a modest house in the suburbs. It was called the American Dream. In many ways the drive to normality accompanied a reversion to traditional gender roles and social standards – standards that had been upended between the wars. GIs' kids (Boomers, including myself) gave them a very hard time about this in the ‘60s, but Boomers also benefited hugely from the solid economic foundations laid by their hard-working parents. They finally acknowledged this in the 1990s when the GIs started to die off in large numbers and Boomers wrote sappy books like The Greatest Generation.
|1943: age 15 and 17|
Richard, Sr., albeit a younger member of the group, otherwise could have been a poster child for it. Born in 1926 he was the youngest of three brothers (all born on Sunday to Mary and Joseph, he sometimes would note), all of whom acquired a fierce work ethic in the Depression working for my grandfather who got through the Depression mostly by doing renovations on homes of the wealthy. My dad was swinging framing-hammers on roof rafters at age 12. (Yes, there were child labor laws then, but they weren’t much applied to a workman's’s own offspring.) He joined the Merchant Marine in 1943 at age 17, served in every theater, was present at the D-Day invasion, and dated Robina whenever the ship was in a nearby port; the two had met in high school. He was discharged in 1946 though he remained part of the Naval Reserve. He married Robina in 1947, worked the next decade with my grandfather and uncles as part of a homebuilding enterprise, and then went off on his own in 1957. Sharon arrived in 1950 the day before North Korea invaded the South, thereby providing my dad a deferment – he otherwise would have been subject to call-up from the Reserves. I arrived a couple years later.
Kids tend simply to accept the environment in which they find themselves, and I certainly did. It was only later that I fully appreciated just how protected my upbringing had been and how hard my parents worked to make it that way. They also were more open-minded than for which I gave them credit in in the 60s. If they weren’t ahead of their time in the way they looked at life and the world, they at least were able to evolve with it. They balanced each other well. My dad affected a hard-nosed persona but he was really a soft touch. My mom was the reverse: bubbly and overtly friendly, but steely and much less forgiving underneath.
|c.1990: not quite a successful smile despite the playful coach|
My dad died in 2000 and my mom the following year. I miss both of them of course. But we all should sorely miss the pragmatic competence of the generation to which they belonged.