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The D-Day generation: a baby boomer pays tribute to the men and women who won World War II and built the peace.

I keep wondering about who we are these days, all of us. I keep wondering if we're way ahead of our parents--more learned, more tolerant, and engaged in the world--or way behind them. They touch my soul, that generation. They are an impenetrable inspiration. They got through the Depression and the war--they got drafted for five years and said Okay, Uncle Sam! and left, and wrote home. They expected so little, their assumptions were so modest. A lot of them, anyway. The women shared the common trauma of a childhood in hard times and the men had the common integrator of the barracks, and I feel that they understood each other. They knew what they shared. When Communism fell we should have had a parade for them, for it meant their war was finally over. We should have one for them anyway, before they leave.

They weren't farmers, or the ones I knew weren't farmers, but they were somehow--closer to the soil, closer to the ground. The ones in Brooklyn, Rochester, wherever, they were closer to the ground.

Affluence detaches. It removes you from the old and eternal, it gets you out of the rain. Affluence and technology detach absolutely. Among other things, they get you playing with thin plastic things like Super Nintendo and not solid things like--I don't know--wood, and water. Anyway, the guy who said "Plastics" to Benjamin 25 years ago in The Graduate was speaking more truth than we knew.

Also, our parents were ethnic in a way I understood. Back in that old world the Irish knew they were better than the Italians and the Italians knew they were better than the Irish and we all knew we were better than the Jews and they knew they were better than us. Everyone knew they were superior, so everyone got along. I think the prevailing feeling was, everyone's human. Actually, that used to be a saying in America: Everyone's human.

They all knew they were Americans and they all knew they weren't, and their kids knew it too, and understood it was their job to become the Americans. Which we certainly have. A while ago a reporter told me how an old Boston pol summed up Mario Cuomo. The pol said, "He's not a real ethnic. He's never been ashamed of his father." The reporter--45, New York, Jewish--laughed with a delighted grunt. The ordeal of ethnicity. I Remember Papa.

There were ethnic, religious, and racial resentments, but you didn't hear about them all the time. It was a more reticent country. Imagine chatty America being reticent. But it was.

I often want to say to them, to my parents and the parents of my friends, Share your wisdom, tell me what you've learned, tell me what we're doing wrong and right. But, you know, they're still reticent. Loose lips sink ships. Also, they tend not to have big abstract things to say about life because they were actually busy living it, and forgot to take notes. They didn't have time, or take time, to reflect. They were not so inclined.

They're like an old guy I met a few years ago when I was looking for a house in Washington. He had gray hair and was stooped in a crouched, still-muscular way and had just one good eye, the other was scarred and blind. He had an old brick house off George Washington Parkway and I had walked through it; it was perfect but too near the highway for a woman with a two-year-old. When I was in the basement I saw his World War II memorabilia--he still had framed citations on the wall, and I could see he'd seen action island-hopping in the South Pacific. And one of the old framed papers said Guadalcanal, and this was exciting, so I said to him, for the most interesting things you hear in life come by accident, "Did you know Richard Tregaskis?" And his good eye squinted. I thought he might not recognize the reference, so I said to him, "He was the one who wrote Guadalcanal Diary." And the squint gets deeper and he says, "Yeah, well, I was a grunt. We'd already done the work and left by the time the writers came." I sort of smiled and asked if I could use the bathroom, where I plucked a piece of shrapnel from my heart.

Now they're all retired, and most of the ones I know are in pretty good shape. My friend Susan's parents go to Atlantic City and catch a few shows, play the slots. They own their house. My father--army infantry, Italy under Blood 'n' Guts--has a small apartment in Santo Domingo and swims and says he can feel the sun to his bones. My mother lives here in town and flies off when one of her children is having a baby, to be a continuity, to say by her presence, We did this too, years ago, so don't worry. Lisa's parents just got back from Europe. George's father, who for 25 years worked in a Newark welfare office, married a woman with a farm in Pennsylvania. Now he walks in the mud in big rubber boots, holding a piece of corn. He's happy. There was more divorce than I think we've noted in our parents' generation, and a lot of them did it in a funny way, not after a year or 10 years but after 25, 35 years. After a life. There are always serious and individual reasons for such things, but I would include the seventies, the decade when America went crazy, the decade when, as John Updike said, the sixties had finally percolated down to everybody.
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Author:Noonan, Peggy
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1994
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