In 1998 Newscaster Tom Brokaw published The Greatest Generation, his best-seller about the men and women of World War II. This wasn't news to me. I grew up in a household steeped in the lore of WWII. Most of my friends and I played at being soldiers, armed with the memorabilia of our fathers' great crusade. As we grew older my brother Leo and I divvied up those souvenirs. He got the Japanese mortar shell and the hand-painted wooden wall plaque of the Seabees 117th Construction Battalion, our dad's outfit. I got the black & white 8x10 portrait of the old man in his Donald Duck outfit, fresh out of Navy boot camp.
World War II wasn't their only claim to greatness, this "Greatest Generation." They survived the Great Depression, learning to look out for families and friends and doing the back-breaking, dangerous jobs, such as coal mining, that getting-by demanded. I never expected to meet better people than my parents and my in-laws.
Then the veterans of the War on Terror the men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan during the past decade began arriving as freshmen at my university. These 'kids' weren't draftees, like my Vietnam-era generation. They were members of the new volunteer armed forces. Many did two or even three tours in the Middle East. Most saw at least some combat, if only the blast of an IED along a dusty Afghan or Iraqi road. (Even that is more than I experienced as a Coast Guardsman on the Great Lakes during the early 1970s, when I steered clear of the last desperate days of Uncle Sam's Southeast Asian misadventure.)
I have no doubt that a new "Greatest Generation" is rising to take the reigns of America's 21st century destiny, whatever that may be. And I'm pleased to say that a nephew of mine, Alex Zubey not so long ago one of Tamaqua High's best distance runners last month joined the ranks of these inheritors of American greatness. In mid-May, Alex graduated from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. I was among the thousands in the stadium, when he and 1,016 other newly minted second lieutenants strode across the stage to accept their diplomas and shake President Barack Obama's hand.
I have no doubt that my old man would have been pleased and proud to pass the torch to the veterans arriving back from the recent wars and the young men and women, such as Alex, who are stepping up to shoulder the challenges that this second decade of the millennium is bound to present.
I doubt the Greatest Generation ever imagined they'd be dubbed such. If my grandfather were here today and you asked him about it, I'm fairly certain he would be awfully humble about the whole thing. I think he'd say that he was simply doing what needed to be done, what was best for his family and his country. But I have to wonder: what transformed Killer Kane, my poppop of the roguish smile who had women lined up around the block (according to family lore), into an honest-to-God, decorated United States Marine?
Then there's my cousin, Alex (who happens to bear a striking resemblance to my grandfather). I remember or rather, I recall the many, many stories when he would disappear in the middle of family gatherings, only to be discovered in the driver's seat of a guest's unlocked car, pretending to drive it. He was constantly interrogating: "Is that your caw out there?" What I'm saying is: he had an unhealthy interest in cars.
Once, even more infamously, Alex disappeared at a Sears photography studio while our family was having a portrait taken. Panicked, my aunt ran outside to find Alex perched in the seat of a tractor, sporting his usual impish smile.
So excuse me if I find it difficult to reconcile the Alex I knew as a child with the Alex who recently graduated. The Alex who can fly planes. The Alex who shook the hand of the president of our country.
Not that I'm shocked he could accomplish these things, not at all. It's just that when you've known someone for more than 20 years, it's difficult to finally see that person as an adult. What would my great-grandmother say my poppop was like as a child? Was he a brave, hard-working, always-dependable little boy who just naturally grew up into a member of the Greatest Generation? I sort of doubt it. I'd guess that more likely he was a little mischievous, a little stubborn. But then he grew up and did what needed to be done.
I have a feeling that even my generation a generation known, fairly or unfairly, for texting and sponging off Mom and Dad will pick up the reins when the time comes. Like the Greatest Generation, our hand will most likely be forced; I firmly believe that there are still individuals out there ready to do what needs to be done.