I HAVE BEEN WONDERING recently whether others my age are as surprised as I am to have risen in the esteem of editorials and television commentators to something called "The Heroic Generation."
Perhaps it's only that "hero" is accorded a bit freely these days. When anyone who turns in a fire alarm or rescues a pet from traffic is a newsworthy hero, we who survived the Great Depression and World War II may qualify too easily for the honor.If anything, our parents' generation had it harder after 1929, when we were half grown. Back in their own youth, many of them began to enjoy a taste of the "liberated" behavior that is now usually associated with the 1960s. Unsupervised "dating" may seem fairly tame now, but it revolutionized 19th century "courting." When World War II overtook them, it was in its last 18 months, short by European or Civil War standards, and relatively low in American casualties. And then came the booming, sometimes "flaming," 1920s.
That made the decadelong shock of the Depression the more devastating, especially for middle-class men, who tended to blame themselves for unemployment and loss of respectability. Although most of them were a bit too old to be called on for World War II, many were also too shaken to trust the wartime and postwar economic boom. They were a lost generation.
We, their children, were also plunged abruptly into the hazards of the 1930s and 1940s. Not that everything changed for the worse.
Dating and organized school sports - also new in our parents' youth - went right along, though still in uneasy balance with what was left of Victorian restraints. We were at least thinking ahead to the relaxed 1960s, without daring to do much about it.
But for many of us high schoolers, family economic distress drove us to after-school and full-time paying jobs such as our parents had never expected would ever be forced on us. If the situation shamed them, however, we rather enjoyed the near-adult responsibility. For several years I was a part-time compositor in a job-printing shop; a friend was a butcher's assistant. A 1970s study, by Glen H. Elder Jr., of a group exactly my age found that middle-class children who had to work tended to become happier in their later careers than those who had not.
By the time our war came, we found that we could act the part of soldiers or sailors at least as convincingly as we had set type or carved lamb chops. Military discipline, for all its quirks, was dedicated to a noble purpose, so we were told and mostly believed; bigger, anyway, than our previous need to contribute to the family's grocery budget.
The pay was small but steady and, if one happened to get in early enough, improved with rapid promotion. The work was novel, though stretched over long, boring interludes, and dangerous only now and then, and for many hardly at all. The uniforms were niftier than the odds and ends of clothing of our school days.
It should never be forgotten that many were killed, among them nine out of some 200 of my male college classmates, some truly heroically. But their misfortune, on the one hand, or the "good war" of many others, was more a matter of luck than of whether one volunteered to be put at risk of anything heroic. Volunteering for anything usually got you the opposite, anyway. One went where one was sent and hoped to get through it.
After the war, as the decades passed, we veterans could condescend with amusement to the growing number of innocents too young to have shouldered a rifle, let alone field-stripped one, or who ignorantly called a rifle a "gun." Best of all, the G.I. Bill, which was passed to keep us off the expected postwar unemployment rolls, instead gave us a boost - far better than the past years' army pay - toward careers, homes and booming families.
Did all this make us, as our more easygoing children sometimes complained, too rigid and demanding? Did our futile lectures about saving for the rainy day that never came somehow alienate them? Or did we indulge them too much with material things such as we, at their age, could only yearn for, and which meant a lot less to them?
Was their junking of sexual rules a reaction against us or only the inevitable fulfillment of a trend that their grandparents had started?
Were we too severe on the one hand or, as old-fashioned critics charged, too permissive on the other? It's too soon to say; both we and our children will be long gone before historians come to any agreement on such questions.
Ah, well. If our now middle-aged children have had a belated revelation that makes us "The Heroic Generation," let's not protest too much.