Uncle Frank was a member of the "Greatest Generation." Of course, he never
knew that, since Tom Brokaw's book did not come out until years after his
death. I'm sure if he had ever heard the term, he would have just arched
one sardonic eyebrow and lit up another Pall Mall — unfiltered, of course,
the red packs bearing the inscription, "In hoc signo vinces" ("In this
sign, you will conquer."). Coming from that earlier generation — one that
smoked cigarettes, drank brown liquor, and ate red meat, my uncle Frank's
only concession to the changing mores of the '60s and '70s was to switch
to Viceroy filters, drink white wine, and eat all his veggies. But those
kinds of lifestyle changes don't earn you the title of "greatest" anything,
maybe "longest-lived," but not great.
To earn the title
of great, you have to live in difficult times and to cope with them as
best you can. You have to stand up to your problems and the problems of
the people who depend on you — family, friends, co-workers, clients, compatriots,
and comrades-in-arms. The broader you define the concept of people you
will care for, the greater you are. You have to strive with blood, sweat,
tears, and toil to win out over those problems. Greatness, in fact, does
not come from the winning — though that certainly helps to earn the title
in this country — because no matter how kindly Americans feel towards an
underdog, they do so love a winner. True greatness stems from the acceptance
of the responsibility and from the effort to do something to solve those
problems. Rosie the Riveter never faced combat conditions, but she too,
and all the women on the home front of World War II whom she symbolized,
belonged to the Greatest Generation.
My Uncle Frank
stepped up to the responsibility earlier than most. He joined the U.S.
Army Air Corps months before Pearl Harbor. However, I must admit he was
no internationalist, no volunteer against Fascism, like the Americans who
went to the Spanish Civil War. Many years ago I read a major news magazine's
salute to the American soldier. I never forgot the opening lines: "The
American soldier has always been a good soldier, often a great one, but
never a willing one. There may be some small part of Flanders field that
will remain forever England, but all American soldiers want is to go home."
It was information
that put my Uncle Frank into uniform. He was reading his town newspaper,
the Glendale Newspress, and spotted a tiny, one-sentence, filler
news item. It announced that the War Department (the title of the Department
of Defense until after WWII) had just purchased one million caskets. Now
Uncle Frank knew that the entire military forces of the United States didn't
number anywhere near one million. He figured the War Department must know
something he didn't. So he decided that getting in early while the getting
was good would ensure that he could pick his spot and prepare properly.
Knowing my Uncle Frank, his decision probably grew equally from a desire
to do a good job and an effort to stay out of one of the War Department's
new acquisitions. My Uncle Frank had the right stuff and he planned to
use it and keep it as long it could do the country and him some good.
People who accept
responsibility, the "grown-ups" in a crowd, often have a natural conservatism.
Awareness that the duties of implementation will fall upon one's shoulders,
that one must put one's money where one's mouth is, can make even the most
visionary a little taciturn at times. You're more careful about making
promises when you intend to keep them. In a crisis, keep your eyes on the
quiet ones. Watching and listening may seem passive functions, but they
can also represent preparation for action. Initially the adults may follow
a wide range of discussions extending across various philosophies that
could drive policy-making. But soon, they will focus on gathering information
that will serve the task at hand.
bring out negative discussions ranging from the inane to the vile. Frightened
people often act badly. They get confused. They feel out of their depth.
Most of all, they feel ignorant of what is expected of them, of what they
should do. They need leadership and good information both. My Uncle Frank
once told me stories of that crazy time between the bombing of Pearl Harbor
and the full mobilization for the war in the Pacific theater. With the
destruction of America's Pacific fleet, the people of California started
to panic. Alarms and threats of Japanese invasion forces on the beaches
kept everyone frightened. My uncle and his buddy Jack had the job of patrolling
the coastline of central California, flying out of Paso Robles each night
in a single engine plane. The government had warned all Californians to
maintain a blackout by staying off the highways at night to prevent enemy
air forces from locating highways by car headlights. Telling the story,
Uncle Frank would shake his head in disgust. Instead of just following
drivers were dimming their headlights using amber and blue gelatin paper.
Apparently, while restricting visibility for the drivers till it almost
assured traffic accidents, the effect on airborne surveillance was worse
than using regular headlights. According to Uncle Frank, the white gleam
of headlights might be misconstrued as street lamps or houses, but amber
and blue lights matched the colors used on airfield landing strips. They
made the highways stand out so clear you could not only hit them with bombs,
you could land on them.
As Kipling said,
"If you can keep your head when all around are losing theirs and blaming
it on you...," then you will concentrate on establishing what most needs
doing, how best to get it done, and what you can do to make it happen.
You will ignore any suggestions that would leave you or the people you
care for hiding from reality. You will forgive the fear that drives people
to jump for any notion that can make real danger seem like a bad dream
and espouse policies that amount to little more than learning to join the
other ostriches with their heads in the sand. You will remember the wise
words of Egyptian Nobelist, Naguib Mahfouz, "When will the state of the
country be sound?... When its people believe that the end result of cowardice
is more disastrous than that of behaving with integrity." You will apply
your best efforts to making things work, to coming up with effective innovations,
to solving problems — big and small. You will, as the song from a previous
"Greatest Generation" of Americans sang, "Rally round the flag."
You will, like
my Uncle Frank, rise to the challenge and — with a little help from friends
and colleagues and compatriots — win a war.
By the way, knowing
that these remarks will enter the eternal archive of full-text sources
(even in this Tasini era), I would like to officially record a name
for an online posterity — Franklin J. Rensberger — my Uncle Frank.