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McClatchy-Tribune Information Services,

A life shaped by returning veterans

  • November 10, 2013 - 6:19 PM

I’m old enough to have actually known a World War I veteran. He had been gassed and had no sense of smell. As you know, being able to taste food is connected to your ability to smell. He ate the same lunch every day, because variety wasn’t a problem.

That group of fighting men has now passed on to history, and the army of World War II vets is rapidly thinning out. There are no more parades and few speeches on Veterans Day. What’s left is a dimming national memory of the sacrifices, heroism, dedication and achievements that underpin the observance. This is not a holiday shared by many except some government workers. Most people would be totally unaware but for the inconvenience of a one-day gap in mail delivery. But for me, it’s a reminder of how fortunate I was to grow up surrounded by what Tom Brokaw coined the “Greatest Generation.”

I must admit that I’m a World War II junkie, having been young, impressionable and awed by the importance and intensity of the united cooperative effort that seemed to engulf my whole growing-up world. It’s been said that you are inordinately affected by what was going on around you when you were 10. World War II was what was going on for me, and, although I am not a part of the Greatest Generation, I grew up watching and learning from its members.

I didn’t think of my parents, relatives or neighbors as part of the Greatest Generation, nor I’m sure did they. My mom and dad were quietly but firmly patriotic and regularly purchased war bonds. They also gave blood (after which my mother routinely fainted). My dad worked in a defense plant, as did almost everyone. I remember him not wanting to work on Saturdays but feeling he couldn’t say no.

As the war progressed and rationing expanded, money became more plentiful than consumer goods, and ration books became like currency, as almost nothing could be purchased without them. Even though a black market existed, most people rarely availed themselves of it, considering participation a lack of patriotism. The only such activity I was ever aware of was the local storekeeper slipping a carton of cigarettes into my dad’s grocery bag. I probably wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t made such a big deal of the process.

Posters depicting acceptable homefront behavior were everywhere. All aspects of the powerful American media were enlisted by the government to shape desirable conduct. We knew about propaganda; it was something the enemy used. We considered our own indoctrination to be good, sound, unbiased information and advice. Most every movie, and especially war movies, had embedded in them a segment in which the star gave a major speech contrasting the evil Axis powers with the American love of freedom. A series of 15-minute serial radio programs were broadcast for children every afternoon.

Returning servicemen were, to me, bigger-than-life icons. An older neighbor boy stepped on a Japanese mine, got a shrapnel fragment in his butt and was sent home to recover. I got to look at his Purple Heart medal, and “impressed” is way too mild a word to describe my reaction. When our next-door neighbor came home from the service, I would make it a point to engage him in conversation, which I would gradually turn to the subject of the war. I spent hours listening as he related stories — even as a young person, I realized what a peak life occurrence the war was to those involved. To my knowledge, he won no medals, but he was certainly a hero to me.

Most families also experienced a war-related loss, and it was sad to see a Blue Star, which hung in the window of each serviceperson’s home, become a Gold Star indicating that the ultimate sacrifice to the war effort had been made. A family friend was killed in North Africa. I remember sitting on his shoulders a year earlier so I could better see the Hopkins Raspberry Parade.

I was in the middle of a baseball game when a neighbor boy ran up and yelled, “President Roosevelt has died.” I remember being terrified, because he was the only president I’d known. I couldn’t imagine our country without him. I ran home to find my mother crying. Fortunately, the war ended soon after.

That generation went on to provide the postwar boom of the 1950s, in which I was lucky enough to come of age. What a great time to grow up and be molded by a generation that collectively accomplished way more than any one individual could have thought possible. Thank you — to all our veterans.

Eddie Ryshavy lives in Plymouth.

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