When I was a young man in need of spending money I mentioned that I could mow many more lawns if I had a power mower. I had a snazzy new model from Sears Roebuck in mind. My father went to his workshop and built a mower using an old washing machine motor, welded pipes for handles, a hand-tooled blade, and discarded toy wagon wheels mounted on plywood platform. He painted it all black and it was a formidable machine. At first I was embarrassed, but then as it drew admirers I was proud of its homespun place in a store-bought world. Typical of the Greatest Generation is the story of a son or daughter who finds a war medal stashed in the attic after their father passes, he having never told them about it.
Even if their exploits had been brave and heroic, the Greatest Generation rarely talked about the war, both because of the difficulty in remembering such carnage, but also from the sense that they had simply been fulfilling their duty, and thus had no reason to brag. But they never talked about it. It was part of the Code. The men of the Greatest Generation took their marriage vows seriously. In the communities where we lived it was treated as a minor scandal. And they were married for the next 60 years. Peggy and John Assenzio had the kind of commitment to marriage typical of the Greatest Generation.
They were married right before John headed off to basic training. Peggy kept her husband constantly in her thoughts while he was away. I wrote every single day.
John would sometimes have nightmares about the war, and Peggy was always there to comfort him. To appreciate her more. The cynical among us are apt to think that while the divorce rate was low, that simply means that more men were stuck in unhappy marriages. The answer can really be found in changing expectations. But could it be that the opposite was true? That with the divorce option off the table the whole tenor of your marriage would change? In war, these men had learned to focus on the objective at hand and not to give up until that objective and the mission as a whole was accomplished.
When they got home, they carried that focus over to the world of work. As soon as they graduate college, many men today want the things it took our parents and grandparents 30 years to acquire. But the Greatest Generation knew that going into the debt was not the way to get the things you want.
They understood that the good things in life must be earned by honest toil. But our grandfathers knew better. They knew that o ne cannot have the bitter without the sweet , and that true happiness comes from overcoming the kind of challenges that build character and refine the soul. The challenges they experienced made their joy all the more sweet because it was tinged with the gratitude of knowing how easily it could all have been taken away.
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Grandpa's Journey: Lessons from the Kitchen in the Art of Living Well by A.G. D'Agnese
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