The Greatest Generation
July 1, 2006
I stood in the darkness, staring up through the seraph-lined circle to the stars in a cloudless sky. The group, just minutes ago alive with competing incarnations of song, conversation, and laughter, now moved in utmost silence.
The cloudless, starry sky belonged to a cold February night in our nation’s capitol. The group of us, visiting Washington for a conference, had decided to spend the evening viewing the sights to be seen around the Capitol. We had come upon the monument in memory of those who served in the Second World War. To stand within the stone walls that encircle the monument is to be surrounded by greatness. Here we stood in the midst of heroes. As I walked, images and names flooded my mind—Guadalcanal, MacArthur, Iwo Jima, Patton, Utah Beach.
As I read the engraved words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and as I stared at the wall of stars, each signifying a thousand fallen heroes, an unexpected and irresistible desire welled up within me. Without removing my eyes from the surrounding commemorations of "The Greatest Generation," I reached into my pocket and pulled out my cell phone. I dialed with a firm resolution of what I wanted to do yet only a vague conception of what I wanted to say.
The phone rang, as it always did, several times before a familiar voice answered. It was my grandmother. Upon hearing my "hello," her voice immediately brightened up. She quickly yelled for my grandfather to pick up the phone as well. When he had done so, she said,
"I’m glad you made the trip safe. Are you enjoying Washington?"
"Yes, it’s wonderful, I’m actually standing here in the middle the World War II Memorial …"
"Oh, I heard it is really something," my grandmother interrupted. Perpetually nervous, she had a tendency to squash the end of your sentence with an interjection of her own.
"It’s amazing. I was here looking, thinking, and I wanted to call you and say…" I trailed off for a second. For once, my grandmother remained silent. I was searching for eloquence, for words that would match the weight of what I wanted to express. Finally, at a loss, I resumed.
"I wanted to say…thanks. Thanks for all you did." I stopped again. That was all I could say. No lofty prose singing the praises of these two, who like so many from their generation, gave so much of themselves. I could conjure nothing about my grandfather’s service in the army or the steel resolve of my family on the Home Front. No, all I could muster was a weak yet sincere thank you.
"Oh, dear, don’t worry about it," my grandmother began in reply, "are you all right? Do you need anything?"
"Yeah," my grandfather joined in, "is there anything you need that we can help with?"
At that moment I was stunned. After what I said (or more accurately tried to say), my grandparents were shrugging it off to ask if I needed anything? There was another awkward silence.
Then it hit me. The heroic accomplishments from which I and the rest of the world draw so much admiration were not so to them. This generation possessed in many ways, in its own mind, the character of any ordinary generation of Americans. Yet, history demanded so much of them, much more than we or any other generation still living can claim. They faced the desolation of Depression. In the wake of that, they fought a truly world war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Their response to such enormous demands was to give. And give they did. They gave of their sweat and toil. They gave of their time and resources. They gave of their lives. And the even more amazing thing is that they never stopped giving. My grandparents, instead of wanting to bask (and justly so) in the glory and praise of their accomplishments, wanted to know if there was anything they could do to help their 20-year-old grandson. My grandparents looked on their selflessness, not as a rare and amazing virtue, but as a necessary and even common trait.
I was not then, nor have I since been, able to express the respect and admiration I have for my grandparents. It is only through this cold prism of the written word and the distance it affords that I can make an even feeble attempt at doing so. Yet maybe my inability stems, at least in part, from awe at their greatness. The greatness is multiplied by what lay underneath it. For beneath the magnitude of their accomplishments lays a depth of character.
Maybe that is part of what has caused many to call them "The Greatest Generation." Yes, they overcame a crippling depression. Yes, they fought and defeated the enemies of freedom. Yet, in such selfless sacrifice, they merely saw the task laid out before them.
My conversation did not last much longer. The group was beginning to make its way, in a lurching manner, away from the Memorial and toward other sights, other monuments, and other heroes. Though I followed, my mind remained at the World War II Memorial and with my grandparents who, having given so much already, wanted nothing more than the chance to give more. I did not need to come to Washington to see heroes. There were two I already knew at home.
Adam Carrington is a junior from Wheelersburg, Ohio, majoring in Political Science.