The Greatest Generation
I will not argue Tom Brokaw’s assertion that the men and women of the Second World War were “the greatest generation.” Those folks, born roughly in the years 1901 – 1927, ushered in the American Century, roared in the Roaring ‘20’s, and suffered through the Great Depression, that depressing era which followed the stock market crash of 1929 and lasted a decade.
That generation also saved the world from Nazi transgression and Japanese aggression in what Archie Bunker would label “The Big One, WWII.”
The Great Divide Generation
Hurrah for the brave men and women of The Greatest Generation! Their wild celebrations after they had won world peace seeded the Baby Boomer Generation (those born in the years 1946-1964), of which I caught the shirttail.
The Boomers were, in some ways, the Great Divide Generation. The hippie and anti-establishment movement knee-jerked against the unabashed patriotism of their parents. They were burning flags, protesting Viet Nam, dodging a draft, and free-loving in a soggy field in upstate New York.
That bunch in the tie-dyed muscle shirts and cut-off jeans was just the loud minority, really. My man, Ronald Wilson Reagan, found the rest of us and rallied us to a new era of God and Country in the 1980s. We were there all along, minding our own business and not doing enough to make the “big picture” our business.
The Great Adventure Generation
All of that is just context for what I really want to talk about.
My generation’s parents were raw-boned and hardwired for hardships. They were accustomed to making chicken salad out of chicken sh…um, squirrel. They worked hard and taught the value of a dollar nd the glory of earning it by the sweat of your brow to those of us who were not busy protesting and burning bras and flags. They left their doors unlocked. They carried shotguns on gun racks in their trucks because you never knew when you might take a notion to shoot some quail or dove.
They shooed us outside to play and said, “Be home before dark.”
They bought us bicycles and showed us how to make ramps of plywood and cinder blocks so we could perform death-defying Evel Knievel stunts. On July 4th, they bought us bottle rockets and Black Cat firecrackers. We used them to shoot missiles at each other from coke bottles and practice not blowing off fingers while tossing the Black Cats at the neighbor’s cat or into a tin trash can.
They built us playgrounds and populated them with swing sets tall enough to soar into the sky and kick tree branches. They also placed merry go rounds, monkey bars, and seesaws on said playgrounds.
If you think about it, they were putting us on Survivor Island and wryly challenging, “See if you can navigate these booby traps and reach adulthood, you little shits.”
You might think they were sabotaging us with these toys of destruction. From crashes on our souped-up bikes to flying out of swings at 15’ in the air, we learned war while at play.
For instance, if you are the designated spinner on the merry go round, your goal is vomit. Not your own, but the kids on the ride. Spin ‘em ‘til they can’t stand up or they go flying off and rolling on the hard-packed dirt. (Did you know the space below the merry go round is calculated so a kid’s head can fit under it?)
If you are on the monkey bars, you naturally engage an opponent in leg wrestling, trying to yank him free and smash him to the earth. Or, you are running across the top bars like a circus acrobat. The seesaw (some called it a teeter-totter) is great fun, especially when the fat kid on the other end has you high in the air and then steps off his end, laughing.
Some of the older members of my generation fought in actual wars like Korea or Viet Nam. Those of us conceived in the ’60s were born into that sweet spot of a mostly-peaceful world and never experienced the horrors of war firsthand.
None of us, however, were coddled. Ours was a life spent outdoors. The sun itself was not enough to suit us; we rubbed our skin with suntan oil so we could bake properly. At recess, all of the boys chased the one boy holding a football in a game we called “kill the man with the ball” without malice toward anyone, except the guy with the ball. (There were other names associated with that game, as well, but that is a rabbit we won’t chase here.) When we caught the poor guy, we gang-tackled him and someone else grabbed the ball and ran with it. We played “flies and skinners” with a baseball and a bat on lots that may or may not have belonged to anyone we knew. We took raw bacon while Mom wasn’t looking and used it for bait for our crawdad fishing expeditions to one creek or another.
The Great Lessons for Future Generations
We were having fun…and learning about life. We learned stuff like…
To the victors go the spoils.
Life is not fair.
If they’re keeping score, play to win. Win with humility. Lose with dignity.
Do your best.
Let go of the handlebars every now and then just to feel the freedom and the thrill of letting go.
Be prepared for sabotage on teeter-totters.
Have a soft place to land when you leap from a swing.
Don’t leg wrestle on monkey bars unless you are sure you can win.
Just stay off of merry go rounds. They are brutal and unforgiving.
Broken bones hurt and broken hearts do, too. Some heal faster than others and some leave a residual pain you feel when the weather changes or a faded memory resurfaces.
It turns out, life is sometimes like a swing. You feel the wind in your hair, the breeze on your face, and the sun shining brilliantly above you. You are free of care and care-free.
Other times, it is a merry go round, whirling in a vicious circle that at best leaves you dizzy and at worst, well, hurts real bad.
Then there are those teeter-totter days when you are up, down, up, down. When you are up, you see the world. When you are down, you have lifted someone else so they can see the world. Just be careful about whom you invite to your seesaw.
The monkey bar days are days when you have to navigate by unusual means. You rely on grip and grit to propel yourself to the other end of it.
Despite the hazards of life’s playground, never lose the wonder. Don’t lose the adventure of it, the thrill. It’s OK to have a little fun along the way.
The Last Generation
Most of all, be home before dark.
The darkness comes for all of us. One day, you will leap from your swing for the last time and those who loved you will sadly watch it sway until, at last, it hangs still and silent. If you are God’s child, whenever and however that leap comes, it is but the final leap of faith and you will be home before dark.