Tuesday, July 27, 2010
The Passing of The Old Guard
My uncle died today. A blessing, he has been descending deeper into the depths of despair from Alzheimer’s for about 4 years. My uncle was a farmer. He loved it. Of course the farm could not generate enough income so he worked in a steel mill for 31 years as well as the farming and then retired into full time farming. His obituary said that he farmed for 55 years, but that is not true—he grew up on a farm. I visited him about 7 years ago before he became incapacitated from the Alzheimer’s. His typical day in retirement would have killed me. His life would have killed me.
As a child in the depression he was run over in a field by a binding machine. He was 7 or 8 at the time, and one might ask what in the world was a child doing in the field during binding. He was working. I don’t quite remember the story but he had some task to do ahead of the binder. Somehow he stumbled in front of the horses and they pulled the wheel of the machine across the poor lad. There was no money for doctors or hospitals, and they put the broken child to bed not knowing whether he would mend or die. He mended. Due to his injury he failed a draft physical right at the end of the Second World War. The examining doctor looked at him in amazement and asked what had happened to him.
In the mid 60s he was out in a field with his tractor in January doing something or other. He remembered stopping the tractor, starting to climb off, and nothing else. He woke up some period of time later about 30 feet from the idling tractor. He was stark naked and in terrible pain. His clothes laid scattered around the tractor and his coveralls were still hitched to the power take-off flapping around in a circle. It was cold, and the ground was frozen. He had several fractured ribs, a mild concussion, severe twisted contusions on his arms, legs and torso, and sprained everything. He tried to make his way to the tractor but could not get up. He was about ¾ of a mile from his house, and he crawled back on his hands and knees.
About 4 years ago, he was found out in the same field driving his tractor aimlessly about. He had no idea who he was, where he was going, or how to get home. His tractor days were over. He had been farming for 79 years.
My uncle was in the WWII crowd. Some call them the “greatest generation”. “Greatest” may be some what of a line of hyperbole, but in my mind they were a damn good generation. The past decade has not been kind to that generation, nor to my family. In 2003, my mother and all 5 of her siblings were alive. In 2004 the baby of the family died, 2005 the eldest died. Last year my mother passed away, and now my uncle. I still have an uncle and aunt, both in their 90s. On my father’s side, everyone of that generation is gone and so are half my cousins from his side.
I hate to see them go. I hate to drive through my parents neighborhood and see the inevitable for sale signs on the homes of those that I know are one of the original families that moved in when the plan was built back in 1954. I hate to look at the obituaries and invariably on the men in their 80s and 90s you will see “Veteran of World War II.
I have a great admiration and respect for my parent’s generation. Like I said, greatest may be more generous than what they deserve, but they were good. They spent their childhoods in the crushing economic disaster of the depression and then fought World War II. They ushered in one of the greatest periods of peace time prosperity that we have ever known. Did they do this because they were really great, above average, ultra-patriotic, smart with a buck straight shooters (as my Dad always called the good guys)? Not really. Hey, you’re a raggedy assed kid with an empty belly and no shoes. What the hell do you do? All you can do is your best to survive. Now you are in your late teens or early 20’s, money is tight and jobs are hard to find. You turn on the radio one Sunday morning and “What did they say? Pearl Harbor? Where in the hell is Pearl Harbor?” My mother said that was the most frequently asked question on that Sunday. That generation said a lot of good byes—and far too often a good bye forever. Google Images, before they changed their format, had a section devoted to World War II partings from Time-Life. I could never look at these photos without my eyes tearing up.
They were not born special people. But the world handed them a set of circumstances that made them special people. World War II was not a police action that had little consequences for the public at large, which has been the case for the wars since. That is a terribly unfair statement to the people who have fought these wars (and they are wars, police action is political sanitizing). A fire fight is just as horrible in Vietnam or Iraq as it was in Iwo Jima or the Battle of the Bulge. But the fact remains that the general public has not been engaged with or has feared a war since World War II. This was a generation that knew hunger as children, and war and death as young adults…yes the world made them special.
Lest I sound like a lionizing fool, let me add this. My parent’s generation fought World War II but they did not run it. They did run Vietnam however, and they were, like all people, capable of making terrible mistakes. Perhaps they were better privates than generals.
I am feeling very finite right now. The first photo above was a family reunion from my mother’s side back in 1952. My father took the picture. Every adult in that picture is dead with the exception my uncle (tallest in the back) and his wife, (seated first person on the right), and my aunt (seated 2nd from the right). The gentleman who passed away today is standing (dark shirt, white collars). Your author is the first kid to the far left, sitting in front of my mother. My eyes are a bit too teary now to continue. So I guess I’ll just say “So long Uncle Dick, I hope you are in a good place now.”
Note! Click on the images to see them full size. The lower image can be clicked again for super sized.
Family Reunion: My Dad
WWII Couple: Time-Life (from the old Google section)