catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 12 :: 2011.06.24 — 2011.07.07


The greatest

I recently found myself on a flight with a group of World War II veterans. They were leaving the Washington, D.C. area after a whirlwind tour of the monuments, particularly (of course) the World War II Memorial. The men sported red and tan caps and T-shirts and were chipper and talkative despite the early wake-up call to make their noontime flight bound for Minneapolis.

The group was large, sprawling over most of the waiting area. Some leaned on walkers; some lounged in wheelchairs; others mingled from row to row of chairs, talking with their comrades. When it came time to board, the gate agent announced their presence and asked us to express our appreciation for their service — which we did, with loud and long applause.

Once on board, I smiled when I remembered the book I had packed in my carry-on bag for the flight: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. It’s the tale of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner who became a bombardier in the war; he endured a plane crash, several weeks at sea fighting off sharks on a leaky raft and then became a POW in Japan for several long months. Louie and his fellow POWs experienced torture, mental humiliation, starvation and disease. When they came home, many of them struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder — before it even was an official disorder.

Louie’s story, including a life-saving epiphany after the war, is nothing short of astonishing. My affection for the red- and tan-capped men sitting around me bloomed as I devoured the book in seat 20C. I wondered about the tales they could tell and the secrets they would never tell.

On the second leg of the flight, I was surrounded by a different brotherhood of men: members of a college rugby team. Like me, they were bound for Texas, having finished a tournament in Minnesota during which they “froze their asses off.” Really? I thought. In May? But it was an assessment they shared with anyone who would listen.

The guys took up a lot of physical space: roaming the aisles, patting each other on the butt as they went by, ordering drinks for one another, making loud jokes about the airplane bathroom. They flirted with the poor young woman trapped in a nearby aisle seat. Thankfully, they ignored the other woman sitting near them, reading Unbroken, on the cusp of middle age.

I will admit that I have rolled my eyes many times over talk of the “Greatest Generation.” From my place squarely in the middle of Generation X, aka the “slacker generation,” it feels more like an indictment of me than an affirmation of them. I think about my grandfather, whom I once interviewed for a high school project about his time in the war. He felt some pride over it, but it was tempered with a humility borne of his Depression-era childhood and Midwestern upbringing. “We just did what we had to do.”

But as I read the book further, and the rugby team got drunker and louder, I had a hard time picturing them enduring some of the horrors that Louie and his buddies faced. Let’s face it, they were raucously disappointed when the airplane ran out of miniature bottles of Jack Daniels. I couldn’t imagine them surviving months and months, sustained by nothing but rice balls and hope.

Then again, why not? Louie, it turns out, was a petty thief as a teenager. He drank, chased girls, brawled in barroom parking lots and played practical jokes on his friends. Maybe older folks looked on him with the same head-shaking disdain that I did with my rugby team seatmates. Until he discovered running. Until the war found him. And then he demonstrated what he was capable of.

Was the World War II generation really made of stronger stuff than the rest of us?

Or were the circumstances of their young adulthood so dire that they had no choice but to rise to the occasion?

What makes a generation great?

Part of me hopes that the rugby-team’s generation — and my generation, for that matter — will not be tested the way my grandfather’s was.

Then again, I know better. In a world that’s getting smaller and hotter by the day, our time will come in which we need to be great. I just hope and pray we have what it takes. 

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