I’m a baby boomer; just made it. I showed up on the narrows in Brooklyn at the tail end of my generation, and since I have older siblings, I was heavily influenced by the ideals of that group. Had I been the oldest born, I’d still be a baby boomer but tend to lean toward what’s next, Generation X. I’m lucky I wasn’t one of them; I don’t like disco.
The Greatest Generation is that of my father’s generation, though not my mother’s; more on that shortly. The GG has its roots in the extremes of the great surplus of the roaring twenties, emerging from the dark cloud of the Lost Generation—those who survived the first war to be fought worldwide, with trench warfare, with gas, with aerial, faceless bombings, with millions dead, without a doubt a generation whose ideals and plans weren’t just compromised, they were shredded—and went on to survive the depression, lost everything, witnessed the attacks on Pearl Harbor and said “Sign me up,” then witnessed the horrors of Hitler and said, “Send me over.” They were great.
The Baby Boomers were born, obviously, after their father’s came home from war, received GI bills, mortgages, built houses in the first suburbs ever, had expendable income, saw the birth of television, the rocket age, and rock and roll. These children of heroes of World War Two were spoiled just enough by their parents who took advantage of that economic boon of the post-war years, to complain when things didn’t go their way, like equality, the draft, and ecological issues. Complain they did. Some called it protesting. Some called it revolution. Whatever, they were not silent, my elder baby boomers.
I grabbed the tail of that one. I remember the first earth day, the Beatles when they were still together, Armstrong on the moon, the Kent State shootings, and hippies on Park Avenue in Massapequa on the Island. I was a child, but I was also the youngest child, so I was aware of things through a sister and brother six and four years older than me.
Back to Mom. My mother is eight years younger than my father. So while he was a member of the GG, old enough to fight in World War Two, my mother turned twelve a week after VE Day. She grew up with a different mindset; plus she is the oldest of her siblings, and that would place her squarely at the beginning of next instead of the end of before. But she was too old to be part of the late-fifties, early sixties revolution when the massive population of teenagers with their daddy’s extra money had extra time. She was married with two kids by then, one on the way.
Hers is the Silent Generation. They kept their nose to the grindstone, they avoided labels of “Reds” or “Commies.” Their older siblings and parents fought in the war against the very real and very visible Nazi regime; then they themselves fought on the job against the very opaque and very indeterminant Red Monster. Instead of being part of a movement, stuck between the group who proudly went to war to save the world and the group who proudly protested the war to save their souls, the Silent Generation were part of world events mostly vicariously. Oh, they busted their butt at home and on the job, and many were a major part of both fronts, but they remain ill-defined. I know this because most people have never even heard of “the Silent Generation.”
Twenty years ago this month I met two men. One was a hero of the Greatest Generation, the other a not so silent member of the Silent Generation. Jan was in his late teens when the Nazi’s invaded his beloved Prague. By the time he left his city, his mother had been tortured for three days at the small fortress near Terezine Ghetto, his father and stepmother had killed themselves, two adopted young children living with his father had been killed by the Nazis, and he escaped to Slovakia. He then rode on the undercarriage of a train from there all the way to Italy, eighteen hours. He was arrested and put in a prison camp. When someone asked what he was thinking he told them he was trying to escape to England to join the Royal Air Force to bomb the fascist bastards. They tortured him and threw him in prison. He escaped, went to England, joined the Royal Air Force, and flew many missions into Italy to bomb the fascist bastards. After the war he became part of the translation team at the Nuremberg Trials. He spent from then until the time I knew him complaining things weren’t how they used to be.
Arnost was only a young teen when he and his family were thrown into the Terezine Ghetto for Jews. He was “technically” part of the GG, but he was born right on the edge. By the time the war was over, his father, mother, and sister had all been killed at Auschwitz, he had escaped from Dachau and in the subsequent years right through the nineties wrote more than a dozen bestsellers about being in Terezine, being in Dachau, and being in love in the time of war. He was a romantic, to be sure. An idealist. And he was anything but silent. He and Jan were very disagreeable friends.
Closer to my father’s age than my mother’s, my friend Arnost reminded me of what I would be like at that time at that age; born just in time to be part of that generation but not early enough to participate, wrapping experiences with ideals and creating stories about experience, seeking out the down and dirty pubs in the lesser parts of the city.
And so look at us now, all of us, the whole world is at war, World War Three, and we are all of us on lock down, wearing masks, keeping our distance, never knowing from where the enemy will strike—the surface of a to-go box? A door handle at the store? A gas pump? The edges of the mask itself made by someone else and mailed to you? Some of us are Arnost-like, believing we will emerge from this better and with love; others are Jan like, wishing merely to retaliate and remain pissed at the lost time. Either way, this might be the first war we are all fighting—all age groups, all generations; which is why, I suppose, that children born now, and probably for a few years, will be known as Generation C, for several reasons. It means “connected consumers” and isn’t really bound by age, though they tend to fall into the post-millennial gaggle. But it now may tend to mean Generation Covid, the socially-distanced ones, the masked ones, the hidden behind walls and barriers ones.
The Silent Ones.
Honestly, I like Boomer better. It’s not the Greatest, but it’s close.