My parents regarded themselves as ordinary people. Their story is, in fact, quite commonplace. Dad was a corporal in the army during World War Two, serving with the 79th Signal Company in Europe. Like so many on the home front, Mom, then his fiancée, waited for his return, scribbling frantically in her diary and no doubt praying for his safety every night. When it was all over, they got married and started a family. This story was repeated so many times that it started a demographic wave known as the Baby Boom. We are just starting to become elderly ourselves.
Mom and Dad met when he was eighteen, about to leave for Harvard, and she was fourteen, a product of Catholic schools and later secretarial school. Judging from confessions made over the years, Dad never really loved anybody but her, and might well have remained a bachelor if she had turned him down. As it was, she put him through a long period of indecision while she debated the relative merits of her suitors in that well-used diary.
One of these was an older man by more than a decade, both handsome and mysterious. He wasn’t in the regular military, but worked for an organization he declined to identify, doing things he wasn’t at liberty to discuss. He, too, had to go away. Before he left, he asked her if she would send him off with the memory of fulfilled love. She refused indignantly, being a well-raised Catholic girl, but he took the refusal graciously; in fact, he claimed to respect her all the more. He disappeared after that, at least from her life. As far as she could learn, he never returned from a mission to South America.
It wasn’t until Dad was about to leave for the front that she decided he was the one. He could only hope she wouldn’t change her mind, and she could only hope he would return in one piece. She had a number of “Dear John” letters to write. The end of the war in Europe came when Dad was still overseas, but that didn’t end their worries. The soldiers who didn’t have all their points on VE day would be assigned immediately to occupation duty. It seemed likely that they would eventually be sent to the Pacific front. A few months later, two atom bombs ended that possibility. An act that inflicted untold death and misery on civilians in Japan may well have saved my father’s life, and many other American lives, and set the stage for the baby boom to come.
Ordinary as my parents’ story is, it has all the elements of a great drama. It has backstory, life-threatening scenarios, suspense, and apparent resolutions that were not as perfectly resolved as they appeared to be. The historians have delineated the basic plot, but the letters flowing back and forth between the war front and the home front fill in the details and supply the emotions.
Couples like my parents, buffeted by historic events out of their control, seemed to long not only for each other, but for a peaceful life. By the time it was over, they thought they’d endured enough drama to last a lifetime. They wanted nothing more than to settle down and live a “normal” life, surrounded by white picket fences and manicured lawns and happy children playing. Still, they didn’t totally trust that vision. A long economic depression before the war had darkened the national outlook. The hangover from that era made people cynical and untrusting of the economy, even when it appeared strong during the 1950s. They knew it had looked deceptively solid in the late 1920s as well. Even those who were living a decent middle class life tended to be careful. In their letters my parents had envisioned a family of three children, but they stopped at two. I guess my brother and I were challenging enough.
Eventually, Mom let me read her diary. I laughed out loud at the entry she made on Pearl Harbor Day. No political reflections on the cataclysm that had visited the country, but plenty of concern that her dating life would soon dry up. I learned, further, that her own father was instrumental in making the final choice between her remaining suitors. Once it had come down to two, it was quite a stark choice, between a Harvard graduate, my future dad, and a musician who hadn’t graduated from high school. She loved the exciting, on-the-edge band life that this boyfriend offered, but with her father’s help, she made the pragmatic choice. (My dad was also a musician, but it was only a weekend sidelight for him). I can’t help believing it was also the right choice, even if life didn’t fall into place immediately. My dad didn’t return to the bank where he had worked before the war. He eventually found himself in the Federal government, continuing a family tradition that my brother and I carried on as well.
That “happily ever after” ending seemed within reach after the great national crises were over, but it didn’t turn out so perfect, as it never does in real life. While the “greatest generation” had triumphed over the Fascists, we baby boomers had to contend with the Vietnam War, in which the goals seemed less justifiable and no clear-cut victory was possible. My folks had a son of draft age, and his lottery number was unfavorable. He came through his military sevice okay, but the anxiety they went through as a result shook their faith in the government and its leaders. The patriotism that had been sky-high and unquestioning all through their own war, and for several years afterward, took a serious hit.
Dad didn’t talk much about the grimmer side of his Army experiences. There were some good times he preferred to dwell on. He made friends with whom he reminisced at many reunions over the years. They recalled the jubilant day when their unit became one of the first to cross the Rhine, and my dad entertained everyone with his piano playing. He did reflect sometimes on the complicated reaction he and many of his bunkmates had when the atom bombs dropped on Japan. No one could help being grateful that the war was over, but the magnitude of the weapons that were now in play made people fearful and gloomy about the future of mankind.
When the soldiers came home from World War Two, pessimistic though they might have been about some things, a huge percentage of them made the most sincere investment possible in the future. The existence of the baby boom generation says something about the resiliency and determination of the human spirit. Faced with the greatest existential peril that mankind had ever known, what did they do? They made a wave of babies who would have no choice but to grow up and to carry on.