My peer group, too young to be considered “The Greatest Generation” and born before the “Baby Boomers”, we entered adulthood with only modest bruises from The Great Depression and The Second World War. I have vivid memories of both, but I was still in elementary school when The Japanese General surrendered his sword to General Douglas MacArthur on the decks of th USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, September 2, 1945. It is estimated that fifty to sixty million human beings were killed in that war which was two and a half per cent of the world’s population. My Uncle, Bourley Clanton, the crown jewel of my grandmother’s life was precisely the U.S. Army’s most desirable age in 1941 and he served in The Pacific through out the entire war, My grandmother had a “blue star” flag permanently in her front window and she had a military regulation size American Flag which we put out on a flag holder attached to the front porch. As the nation’s smallest camp, we put the flag out in the morning and brought it in each evening as we were proud patriots. Many houses had American Flags flown. When anyone knocked on the front door (one did not customarily do that) my grandmother was frightened that it would be a Western Union Telegraph Messenger, as that was, in those days, the manner by which families were notified of the death or missing in action of their sons or husbands. Uncle Bourley was not injured and became the Commanding Officer of Yokohama Naval Base as part of the occupying forces of Japan following The War. Arthur (Bill) Rogers, my father’s brother was a flight engineer in the European War. He stayed in the Air Force after The War and flew in most of the flights of the Berlin air lift over The Wall which the Communists built to attempt to force out the Allied Forces. My father was older than the draft classes but served his community as head of the Boy Scouts of America (a very patriotic organization) for Northwest Arkansas. My mother and the church ladies knitted socks for the servicemen and folded bandages. We had scrap metal drives and collected pots and pans to be melted for construction of tanks and jeeps. We bought War Bonds to help finance The War.
During WWII, we believed the war to be the most important thing on earth, and believed it to be the whole world at war. It was the renewed hope of the unsuccessful WWI, (The War to End All Wars). During this war, 1.9 billion people were engaged in military action. The United States had 292,000 servicemen killed in battles and had 114,000 non-combat deaths. Four tenths of a per cent of the total U.S population died as a result of The War. The losses around the World were far greater with an estimated deaths of 2.5% of the people on Earth.
Looking back, for those of us who did not go into the danger-zone, apart from our fears (we regularly had air raid drills and black outs), we were only modestly, physically inconvenienced. We all said we were sacrificing for the war-effort subjected to rationing of gasoline, leather shoes, automobile tires, sugar and an almost complete disappearance of chocolate. Nylon hosiery and the best brand of cigarettes became items for bartering but I hardly noticed. My model airplane constructions were severely challenged in that we could not get balsa wood and cardboard was used in its place. In fact, those not in combat in my opinion, actually prospered as the war-effort meant a rapid need for a much greater work force as we manufactured weapons, military planes, vehicles, Spam, K-rations and uniforms at maximum speed. Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, most Americans were determined to return to isolationism and considered themselves pacifist. Congress had only minimally funded development of the tools of war and the U.S. had to build thousands of planes, tanks, ships and weaponry on an emergency basis with new employees working in several shifts. In my home town, we had the glider factory which was making aircraft used to carry soldiers on D-Day in Europe. A very large proportion of women, who were previously unemployed, were recruited to the factories as “Rosie, The Riviter”. Although, millions of men were taken from their families and had their education interrupted, everyone believed that our cause was not only just but that the continued existence of the free world depended on it.
By today’s standards, we were poorly informed and it was several years before we knew of the more than fifty million human deaths of which, it is estimated that at least half were civilians; certainly the six million Jewish people methodically killed by Hitler were civilians.
In America, spirits were high and people felt we had survived The Great Depression and by 1944 everyone believed that we would win The War (and save Western Civilization and Christianity as well). The great majority of Americans were united in a common cause and when the Japanese surrendered unconditionally, there appeared to me to be universal joy and a great swell of optimism and pride, which actually lasted two decades while I made my way through high school, college, medical school, and service in The US Navy Medical Corps.
After 1945 a majority of the WWII veterans, came home to wives, jobs, and The G.I. Bill for a college education. Young people who had had their lives postponed for a few years, achieved a greatly accelerated birth rate producing the “Baby Boomers”. These folk grew up with no memory of The Depression or The War. It seemed that everyone had a house, a car, and plenty of food and chocolate! Television was plentiful by 1950 with The Mickey Mouse Club, Andy Griffiths, I Love Lucy, The American Bandstand and afternoon Soaps. Expanding business representatives invaded university campuses, recruiting among the senior class, competing to employ graduating students. Jobs were everywhere to be filled. The United Nations had been chartered with great hope for the purpose of debate, or at least ventilation among nations to replace killing people. It had even seemed to have met the challenge of in the Fifties preventing North Korea from taking the whole Korean Peninsula (with a subsequent threat to Japan) with a U.N. fighting force. The Nationalist Chinese were driven out of the Asian mainland and China became a Communist country.
Things seemed to be going well and then we, nationally, had a cold shower with The Bay of Pigs and nuclear missiles in Cuba. And there was The Iron Curtain and The Soviet threat.
Then we had The Sixties, especially 1968.
Somehow, in spite of anti-war demonstrations, assassinations, race riots, and an enormous cultural evolution, our county survived The Sixties. But as a people we were dramatically changed, having sustained great loss of life, and injuries in an unpopular war, we lost much of our post war optimism, trust and unity. The Viet Nam War seemed unending; then lost. Viet Nam Veterans were treated as if they were responsible for the mistakes of the government. The integration of the races was a tortured period for both the minority as well as the majority. Disillusionment with authority, The Pill, Roe v. Wade and easy availability of mind altering chemicals ushered in new frontiers of tolerated life styles . Thankfully, an enormously beneficial and greatly successful American achievement characterized the space race, which was uniformly supported across all sectors of our nation. John Kennedy inspired us to go to the moon, “not because it is easy but because it is hard”. Going to the moon had been at best, a fools dream and also a joke. Some complained about the cost of the space program, but the technical spin offs from the necessary research programs have been a great dividend rather than a cost. The financial and intangible rewards in communication technology, alone, in terms of dollars, I would guess has been several multiples of the investments in NASA.
I strongly support a terrific proposal of Frank Moss(2)(M.I.T.) explained in detail in an Op-Ed Contribution: “Our High-Tech Health-Care Failure” N.Y. Times| November 10, 2011. Professor Moss also has published: “The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the M.I.T. Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives”.
I believe that The United States should commit to a Twenty-first Century “moon shot” for a consumer health revolution as described by Frank Moss. Our national government should recruit universities and private firms to plan and execute his proposal. This would have a much greater probability of success than the NASA programs and should pay for itself concurrently with the operation of the project.
Despite all of these hurdles, more people were getting an education, the entertainment industry expanded. Actors and Actresses were paid many millions of dollars per movie; athletes (some almost illiterate and socially irresponsible) were able to barter for millions, now even over a hundred million for throwing and chasing balls. Young people had seemingly endless rock concerts, MTV, billions of CD’s, then overnight, it seemed as if everyone in the free world had been issued an iPod as if by magic; then iTunes! Then without even taking the earplugs out, everyone, again magically was issued a cell phone with TEXT MESSAGING. Everyone had a car, an iPod and a text messaging machine. We had to tell some people not to drive their car with their earplugs in and simultaneously texting (or sexting).
Some days I can’t decide whether we are marching two steps forward then one step back or is it one step forward and two steps back.
My parents generation told us that Franklin Roosevelt and The U.S. Congress had found the causes of the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. The Glass-Steagall Act of 1932 had put severe limitations on speculators and leveraging and strengthened The Federal Reserve. Everyone’s savings were insured against bank failure. Then, apparently on a Friday afternoon or night, with little fanfare,The Congress repealed The Glass-Steagall act in 1999. Throughout the remainder of the Twentieth Century, we learned that there were “business cycles to be expected a we had recessions at a rate of about one per decade. But from the post WWII period until my peer group reached nominal retirement age, the economy pretty well marched up with incomes exceeding inflation, labor-saving devices and comfort technology expanding every year. There was a marked expansion of home owner ship. The Berlin Wall came down, The Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight, there was much talk of the peace dividend and a balanced budget with substantial surpluses.
The Twentieth Century was The American Century. We survived two World Wars, the disasters of Prohibition, which required two contradictory Constitutional Amendments in only the space of fourteen years, There was the Holocaust, The Cuban missile crises which brought us within days, if not hours of nuclear war, the sixth decade which saw more tragedies and change, in The United States, than perhaps the five prior decades of the Century combined. We had a sexual revolution and empowerment of women (fully fifty per cent of our human resources). We had the first U.S. President to resign, to avoid impeachment for deceiving the electorate. Later, when very few Americans knew the names: Glass-Steagall, everyone knew the name of a young female White House Intern who had a spot on her blue dress and then little was accomplished in Washington for the next year. In the Twentieth Century, we had great upheavals of the struggle of civil rights and racial integration. We’ve had several energy crises which we never solve but we continue to consume ever greater quantities. It seems that about every fifteen years, we discover, as if for the first time, that we use far more energy than we can provide from our own resources and that while we are a small portion of the World’s population, we use most of the energy that the World can produce.
We flew the first powered flight with a man piloting it on December 17, 1903 and in the same Century, flying around the World was so common that many people have tired of it. The wing span of the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner is greater than the distance of the first flight of the Wright Flyer. The 787 can carry 250 passengers 8000 miles in one hop. Flying in the early years was a romantic endeavor with young men flying propeller driven bi-planes with open cockpits, “wind in your face”, leather helmets, goggles and white silk scarfs. It was giving thrill rides at carnival like traveling shows. Now it is unpleasant, inconvenient and expensive.
In the post-war Forties, with very little fanfare, the transistor was invented and with even less notice, the unit of the digital Bit was defined. These two items gave us digital communication which led to The Internet which probably has done more for communication and education than anything since the invention of movable type at the time of the printing of the Gutenberg Bible. Numerous medical discoveries and inventions of the Twentieth Century, have completely revolutionized the practice of medicine. In 1953, Watson and Crick published THE DOUBLE HELIX(3) describing the molecular structure of DNA which has opened many doors to the life sciences and medicine. The human genome was nearly completely identified as 1999 came to a close.
The American Century gave us Louis Armstrong who was the iconic musician who made improvisation and the Jazz solo emblematic of the individual in America. Les Paul made the electric guitar a required component of virtually every musical performance and made the guitar, once a small corner of music, the most numerous musical instrument in the Western World. Iconoclastic music, Levi jeans, T-shirts and Hollywood movies became our most visible export. Blue jeans, worn, torn and faded were sold behind the Iron Curtain for two or three hundred dollars a pair, compared with Soviet made trousers priced at twenty dollars. We had Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, imported The Beatles, Michael Jackson and a countless blur of Rap artists. Giants of Twentieth Century American music include George Gerswin and Leonard Bernstein who wrote The Two American Operas: PORGY AND BESS and WEST SIDE STORY. Arnold Schoenberg was among the first to introduce Atonal music which is widely used. Aaron Copland (Fanfare For The Common Man and Rodeo) is said by some to be America’s first composer. Edward “Duke” Ellington brought us careful composition of Jazz and impeccable sartorial elegance, while quietly integrating American musicians before the time of Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King. Herman Wouk (THE CAINE MUTINY, 1951) and Joseph Heller (CATCH 22, 1961) captured the military culture of this period.
Simultaneously, I became sixty-five [now 81] and we humans completed the Twentieth Century with apparent great success; (look at almost any aspect of life in 1900 compared with 2000). In the early part of the Century, my mother’s sister died of diphtheria and my mother had and survived smallpox. In my first few years, I had whooping cough. These diseases are virtually unknown now, at least in our country. Poliomyelitis terrified us more than The War and it has been nearly, if not completely eliminated. Cancer, when I was in medical school was usually discovered late and infrequently cured. Its early detection and treatment have made very significant improvements.
If one was caught being smug, however, the first decade of the Twentieth-First Century has more than humbled us. So after all those struggles, all of those killed, wounded and displaced, one is tempted to share the philosophy of the Eleventh Century Persian Poet, Omar Khayyam:
“The Moving Finger writes, and having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit,
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a word of it.
But helpless pieces in the game He plays,
Upon this chequer-board of Nights and Days,
He hitter and thither moves, and checks…and slays,
Then one by one, back in the Closet lays.”(4)
So here we are aging, poorly fit, tired and spent, some battles won, some lost; “leave it to the young, that is why the nation cares and educates its youth.” But one hears another poet:
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightening they
Do not go gentle into that good night.”5
There still is a need for those of us who well remember The Great Depression and The Second World War. We still have miles to go before we sleep.
Thank you for “Flying Zebra”! If you liked this, consider hitting my reblog button or Share on FB.
Charles Clanton Rogers August 2015
1. Frost, Robert, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” In A COLUMBIA ANTHOLOGY, Ed. by Harmon, William, Columbia University Press, New York, 1992.
2. Moss, Frank, Op-Ed., N.Y. Times, 10 Nov. 2011.
3. Watson, James, “The Double Helix”, published privately in 1953, London, later, Norton and Company, 1980,ISBN 9-393-95075-1.
4. Fitzgerald, Edward, RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHYYAM, English translation, first published anonymously in London, 1859. QPBC, New York, 1996
5. Thomas, Dyland, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”, In A COLUMBIA ANTHOLOGY, Ed. by Harmon, William, Columbia University Press, New York, 1992