A Short Memoir
Born in the 1930s and early 40s, we exist as a very special age cohort. We
are the Silent Generation. We are the smallest number of children born
since the early 1900s. We are the “last ones.”
We are the last generation, climbing out of the depression, who can
remember the winds of war and the impact of a world at war which rattled
the structure of our daily lives for years. We are the last to remember
ration books for everything from gas to sugar to shoes to stoves. We saved
tin foil and poured fat into tin cans. We hand mixed the white stuff
with the yellow stuff to make fake butter. We saw cars up on blocks
because tires weren’t available. We can remember milk being delivered to
our house early in the morning and placed in the milk box on the
porch. (A friend’s mother delivered milk in a horse drawn cart.)
We are the last to hear Roosevelt’s radio assurances and to see gold stars
in the front windows of our grieving neighbors. We can also remember the
parades on August 15, 1945; VJ Day. We saw the ‘boys’ home from the war
build their Cape Cod style houses, pouring the cellar, tar papering it
over and living there until they could afford the time and money to build
We are the last generation who spent childhood without television; instead
we imagined what we heard on the radio. As we all like to brag, with no
TV, we spent our childhood “playing outside until the street lights came
on.” We did play outside and we did play on our own. There was no little
league. There was no city playground for kids.
The lack of television in our early years meant, for most of us, that we
had little real understanding of what the world was like, but stamp
collecting helped us know more about the World. Our Saturday afternoons,
if at the movies, gave us newsreels of the war and the holocaust
sandwiched in between westerns and cartoons.
Telephones were one to a house, often a shared “party line” with our
neighbors and hung on the wall. Computers were called calculators and were
hand cranked; typewriters were driven by pounding fingers, throwing the
carriage, and changing the ink. Internet and GOOGLE were words
that didn’t exist. Newspapers and magazines were written for adults. We
are the last group who had to find things out for ourselves.
As we grew up, the country was exploding with growth. The G.I. Bill gave
returning veterans from World War II the means to get an education, and
spurred colleges to grow. VA loans to veterans fanned a housing boom. Pent
up demand from the war, coupled with new installment payment plans, put
factories to work. New highways would bring jobs and mobility. The
veterans joined civic clubs and became active in politics.
In the late 40s and early 50’s the country seemed to lie in the embrace
of brisk but quiet order, as it gave birth to its new middle class (which
became known as Baby Boomers). The radio network expanded from 3
stations to thousands of stations. The telephone started to become a
common method of communications, and “Faxes” sent hard copies around the
world. Our parents were suddenly free from the confines of the depression
and the war, and they threw themselves into exploring opportunities they
had never imagined.
We weren’t neglected but we weren’t today’s all-consuming family focus
Our parents were glad we played by ourselves “until the street lights came
on.” They were busy discovering the post war world.
Most of us had no life plan, but with the unexpected virtue of ignorance
and an economic rising tide, we simply stepped into the world and started
to find out what it was about. We entered a world of overflowing plenty
and opportunity; a world where we were welcomed. Based on our naive
belief that there was more where this came from, we shaped life as we
went. We enjoyed a luxury: we felt secure in our future.
Of course, just as today, not all Americans shared in this experience.
Depression poverty was deep rooted, and discrimination was alive. Polio
was still a crippler. The Korean War was a dark presage in the early
50s, and by mid-decade school children were ducking under desks to
learn how to “escape” atomic bombs. Russia built the Iron Curtain
and China became Red China. President Eisenhower sent the first “advisors”
to Vietnam; and years later President Johnson invented a war there. Castro
set up camp in Cuba, and Khrushchev came to power in Russia.
We are the last generation to experience an interlude when there were no
existential threats to our homeland. We came of age in the 40s and
50s. The World War was over, and the cold war, terrorism, the
assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, civil rights,
technological upheaval, global warming, and perpetual economic
insecurity had yet to haunt life with insistent unease.
Only our generation can remember both a time of apocalyptic war and a time
when our world was secure and full of bright promise and plenty. We have
lived through both.
We grew up at a time when the world was getting better, not worse. The
last of us were born in 1942, more than 99% of us are now either retired or
dead; and all of us believed we grew up in the best of times!
We are the Silent Generation – “the last ones.”