A nameless generation comes of age

October 14, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm

AT 40, I realize nobody ever accused mine of being the greatest generation - those born between the late 1950s and 1970.

We were overshadowed and outnumbered by the colorful, rebellious Baby Boomers and never really had a name that defined us.

But I also plainly see those terrorists of Sept. 11 tore out a chunk of my nameless generation, leaving a hole like the charred one in the Pentagon.

Our uneventful ride through American history was over, and suddenly it was personal.

Looking at the faces and reading the snapshot life stories of the casualties is like leafing through a midlife yearbook.

So many of the 6,000 people were in the prime of their lives: vigorous go-getters who were at work or on planes at 8:48 a.m., hundreds with young children - bond traders, firefighters, flight attendants, military officers, you name it.

All kinds were struck down.

One obituary told of a man who gave his wife a surprise 40th birthday party the week before.

One passenger, believed to have helped overpower the terrorists aboard the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, was 31.

These losses hit home like a body blow.

These were not battlefield deaths, but in a way it was even worse.

Countless numbers reportedly showed bravery, grace and civility as their lives were claimed in a conflict nobody saw coming.

Now, at the start of this shadowy struggle, there's no time to recall millennial high hopes that the 21st century would be different from the war-torn 20th. But for my generation lately awakened to a call to arms, it's worth reviewing a few postcards from decades past:

The 1960s: Being children was not a walk through Woodstock or the Summer of Love. We never had to worry about getting drafted, of course, but as children we witnessed the turmoil on black and white television and heard adults talk about assassinations, funerals, riots, anti-Vietnam War protests, the war itself.

The low water mark for the republic was 1968, leaving demoralization all around.

The 1970s: Best known for Watergate and bad hair, the decade only deepened the collective distrust of government.

Inflation, the long gas lines and the Iran hostage crisis did not cheer things up. Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech accurately described our condition.

The 1980s: The country recovered some of its self-confidence. Wall Street began to boom.

After college, a lot of us went to law school, about as many as those who signed up for the Peace Corps 20 years earlier. Then again, there was no statesmanlike call for public service.

Oh, and the Berlin Wall fell down and the Cold War - a constant presence in our youth - was won without firing a shot or a nuclear missile. Quite a nice surprise going into a recession.

The 1990s: By far the best years, perhaps a golden age. Peace and prosperity, some said then, is hard to beat.

The Persian Gulf war acted as a salve to the Vietnam War wounds, especially for the military, but it did not really scrape the American psyche.

Sport utility vehicles seemed to symbolize the affluence (never mind their poor fuel economy). With the deficit down, highest homeownership in history, low unemployment, we were kings of the road.

The lyrics of a song by 10,000 Maniacs, sung at a Clinton inaugural ball, captured the zeitgeist: "These are days you'll remember/Never before and never since ... will the whole world be warm as this."

Sometimes the biggest decision of the day was what kind of sparkling water to drink or whether to have a vanilla latte or a skim cappuccino. Divorce was out and marriage was in, especially for those children of cracked 1970s households. Everything was almost too easy, grazing on the fruit and the fat of the land. The cities - Chicago, Boston and, most of all, New York - reflected this carefree upswing and renaissance. Yes, the '90s were gay in the original sense of the word: merry, untroubled by the world's cares.

On Sept. 11, all that vanished.

Let me tell you, my generation changed and sobered in a shattering flash of blood, glass, steel and fire. Just as Pearl Harbor was a defining moment for the generation called the "greatest," this is our Identifying Moment, the historic opportunity to rise to an occasion - for the first time.

In mid-career, we aren't the bottom-line decision-makers in society, but we are good at whispering advice into ears that will listen in our chosen fields.

In plain English, we may not have the power of presidents, generals or moguls, but we have a great deal of influence to bring to bear on this national crisis - not to mention a furious vigor. There's nothing like getting galvanized and contributing to a larger cause, like your country.

It's not about the pursuit of our private happiness anymore, not with life and liberty suddenly at stake. We just lost thousands of our own, men and women who paid the ultimate price, unarmed and defenseless in the workaday world.

Late bloomers, maybe, but this means we have a chance to show how much we love the land of American dreams: never more than now.

Jamie Stiehm is a reporter for The Sun.

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