Monday, May 25, 2015
Mel's Memorial Day Meditations - The "Greatest Generation" is Still Alive and Kicking on my Route
By Mel Carriere
One might think that history and the US Mail don't mix, but being a letter carrier also involves being something of an amateur historian, because by paying attention and really listening to postal customers talk one can't help but learn a lot about the way things used to be. There are customers out there with some really good, albeit sometimes tragic stories to tell, and the letter carrier is a better therapist than the psychiatrist, minus the $150 an hour bill.
It is hard to believe, but there are still a few surviving members of the "Greatest Generation" still checking their mailboxes these days. Per Tom Brokaw's definition, this "Greatest Generation" includes those who were brought up during the great depression and then went on either to fight in World War II or to struggle to keep the war effort going here on the home front.
The Greatest Generation consists of remarkable people, remarkable heroes who participated in this country's last righteous war; maybe its only righteous war, a conflict about which it could be said that if they didn't stand up and fight, evil would have triumphed and ruled the planet. There is still plenty of evil to go around these days, but nothing to the degree of malicious, cold-hearted wickedness that would abound if the Greatest Generation had not put an end to it. I'm not saying that the veterans of other wars should not be recognized on Memorial Day; they are equals in heroic stature because they went into danger when their country called, even when their country used their lives lightly in wars that were often fought for dubious purposes. But there was nothing dubious about the purpose motivating the Greatest Generation and this is why, fairly or unfairly, it has the adjective "greatest" attached to it.
The reason why I am using this space here on Memorial Day to celebrate the Greatest Generation, at the expense perhaps of those equally deserving warriors who served in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan Iraq, and other seemingly innumerable conflicts, is because there are still plenty of veterans around who made it through these more recent wars, whereas the Greatest Generation is thinning out at a frighteningly quick pace. Fortunately, I was able to meet many of these great men and women while they were still alive, and absorbed quite a bit of living history in the process.
11 years ago a customer I had that I'll call Mr. L passed away. Mr. L fought the Japanese in the Aleutians and on Leyte, in the Philippines. When I was his letter carrier, he would scramble to the mailbox on his walker to regale me with his war stories. Mr. L was shot up pretty badly back in the war as a crazy 19 year old (the exact phrasing he would use), and continued to suffer the painful consequences of a battle-battered body 60 years after the fact. His war wasn't quite over, however, because he still had to fight the penny pinching VA for his health benefits, which the politicians were always finding excuses to reduce. I thought Mr. L would be one of the last of the Greatest Generation that I would have the pleasure of listening to, but not quite. It turns out there are still a handful of these heroes around.
Currently I have a customer named Mr. R who served with the 2nd Armored in World War II, a division once commanded by the distinguished George S. Patton. The 2nd Armored fought in North Africa, Sicily, Germany and the Netherlands. It was the first American unit to enter Berlin. Mr. R has never told me how old he is and I have never asked, but assuming he entered the army in 1943 at the age of 18, which I think would be a fairly typical scenario, Mr. R would be about 90 years old now.
Mr. R still proudly wears a 2nd Armored ball cap. He still walks a half mile to the store every day to buy his newspaper, instead of having it delivered to his house, and maybe that is why he has lived to be 90. He doesn't go too fast; I finish delivering the block during the time it takes him to get from the corner to halfway to his house, but I'm sure there was a time 70 years or so ago when he could have easily knocked me on my ass. A couple of weeks ago, on the 70th Anniversary of VE Day, I tried to thank him for what he had done, but he just shrugged it off like it was no big deal. The Greatest Generation is nothing but humble too.
The photo above of these jaunty fellows from the 2nd Armored Division was taken about the time of the Normandy invasion. I would like to think there is a place in heaven that looks something like this, a hall reserved especially for the Greatest Generation, a place where these aged warriors are once again restored to the hale and hearty vigor of their youth, and they stand around a piano just like this, regaling one another with tales of their heroic deeds. The angels serve them drinks.
So remember to say thank you to one of the aging WW II warriors or Rosie the Riveter warriors on your route one day soon, don't wait too long, and enjoy your Memorial Day Holiday.
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Image is from: "Archivesnormandie39-45 P000461" by Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Archivesnormandie39-45_P000461.jpg#/media/File:Archivesnormandie39-45_P000461.jpg