A passing of the torch

Matt Rohde

November 11, 1992|By Matt Rohde

THIS year my parents shocked me by turning 70.

The tremor I felt, though, was small compared to the one a few years ago when my uncle retired, closing forever the doors of the corner shoe store started in 1909 by my grandfather.

The loss of such a permanent fixture of those years of my youth was no less of a jolt than if, well, the Berlin Wall had suddenly disappeared.

In August I sank into a week-long depression after reading in my hometown newspaper in Wisconsin, the Horicon Reporter, of the retirement of "Dr. Fred," who removed my tonsils in 1961.

I entered this world into the hands of his father, "Dr. John." His grandfather, "Dr. Adrian," delivered my mother. There will be no extensions of that line.

And now, among these signposts, many passing by too quickly these days to be read, is the election of Bill Clinton. It is official: We baby boomers are in charge.

While we've been waiting for this since George McGovern, maybe even Gene McCarthy, there is an uneasiness that has nothing to do with the new president's character or his tax policy. Rather, it is like an unsettling confirmation that we can no longer move back in with Mom and Dad if things get difficult.

Perhaps a day should be set aside -- or, better yet, a month -- for us to think about all of this.

Whatever one's emotions about President Bush's performance and the stinging rebuke by the voters, there is a certain poignancy in realizing that we have seen the last World War II-era president. We would do well to ponder that generation now leaving the stage.

It came of age during the Great Depression, a time which seems to have as much meaning to my generation as the Great Flood.

My father, like so many others, seldom talks of his World War II years. He came home from Europe to a sister with polio. He married my mother, who had lost her first husband to the Wehrmacht shortly after giving birth to my sister. Their story is not unusual.

When my father's troop ship brought him back in 1946, the world had been conquered by him and his kind, in a magnitude not seen since the Roman Empire. But whatever the excesses of Pax Americana, there was to be no plunder, no servitude. No one's boot was kept on the chest of Japan and Germany.

As our presence overseas diminishes, it has become ever more clear just how uncommon this American generation was -- so devoid of the blood hatreds and primeval cruelties now bubbling up again in Europe and Central Asia after being held just below the surface for 40 years.

Those Americans showed the world a feet-up-on-the-table directness and an easy swagger of action -- "American-style," it was called. By contrast, our society has become curiously diffident in the face of problems that, however grave, are really nothing new.

Overseas, the use of the term "American-style" is now generally limited to a description of a type of toilet convenience.

I remember clearly 30 years ago how their generation's core of decency was prodded by the televised scenes from the South showing the brutality of Bull Connor and his ilk. It was this, as much as anything else, that broke Jim Crow's back and opened the door to the civil rights gains of that era.

This too we should ponder in the face of the apparent retrenchment in attitudes taking place, for it is happening on our watch -- we who have always been so sure of our conscience and our values.

My generation seems to celebrate the sullen; its better-educated are becoming quite practiced in pinched Euro-affectations. Baby boomers have long worshiped youth and continue to revel in self-indulgence. Yet we have never matched our parents' unabashedness and exuberance.

Even in retirement, the attitudes of my parents and their friends are a far cry from the stubborn crotchetiness that comes to mind when I recall my grandparents at 70. It is still the "boys" who were in the service and my mother still plays bridge with the "gals," as she has done for 50 years.

We baby boomers are far too serious in our networking to be boys and gals.

Every fall my parents and their friends still go up to the elementary school for the Veterans Day program and they still go out to the cemetery for the ceremony. In their words it's for the boys. And the gals. And the generations before them.

When I was growing up, I did not like to go because the ritual seemed corny and my absence would be a way of making some long-forgotten statement.

Now, though, I do not go for a more selfish reason.

I cannot bear to hear, as the old legionnaire plays "Taps," the increasing quaver of the tones.

Matt Rohde is a government lawyer.

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