Every generation has its share of men who fully live the art of manliness. But there may never have been a generation when the ratio of honorable men to slackers was higher than the one born between 1914 and 1929. These were the men that grew up during the Great Depression. They’re the men who went off to fight in the Big One. And they’re the men who came home from that war and built the nations of the Western world into economic powerhouses. They knew the meaning of sacrifice, both in terms of material possessions and of real blood, sweat, and tears. They were humble men who never bragged about what they had done or been through. They were loyal, patriotic, and level-headed. They were our Greatest Generation.
Tom Brokaw gave them that name, and while it’s a bold claim, I wholly support it. They weren’t made out of different stuff than we are, but they were faced with greater hardships and challenges, and successfully rose to the occasion. They weren’t perfect by any means, of course, but as a whole they were a cut above the rest.
One of the inspirations for Kate and I starting the Art of Manliness was our grandfathers. When I looked at them, and then at the men of today, the chasm of manliness seemed jarring; they simply don’t make ’em like they used to. Their extraordinary manliness is not something you can scientifically measure. But you can sure feel it. And you can see it in old pictures. It seems every man back then was dashingly handsome; their manliness practically leaps off the page.
When I was taking a tour of the USS Slater in Albany last summer, Uncle Buzz and I were looking at the tiny, closet-sized kitchen where a couple of men prepared meals for hundreds of sailors as the ship rocked to and fro, and at the giant guns the men used to blast the enemy and knock planes from the sky. One tends to picture 30-year-old guys doing that stuff; Tom Hanks and Co. always leap to mind. But a lot of them were just 18, fresh from the prom and varsity football.
In Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, he remembers his mother telling him the story of the day Gordon Larsen came into the post office where she worked. Larsen was typically a cheerful and popular member of their community, but that day he had stopped in to complain about the rowdiness of the teenagers the night before, which had been Halloween. Brokaw’s mother was surprised at his tone and asked him good-naturedly, “Oh Gordon, what were you doing when you were seventeen?” Gordon looked at her squarely in the eye and said, “I was landing at Guadalcanal.” He then turned and left the post office. These were men who were surely mature beyond their years.
There’s a saying that each generation is most like their grandparent’s. And while we’re not there yet, I do see a lot of people these days who are dusting off the values of the Greatest Generation and embracing them once again. What were those values? Today I’d like to take an opportunity to enumerate a few of the Greatest Generation’s lessons in manliness, using some of my personal observations along with various stories and quotes taken from Brokaw’s book.
Lesson # 1: Take Personal Responsibility for Your Life
While today’s generation often shirks responsibility as too much of a burden the Greatest Generation relished the chance to step up to the plate and test their mettle. One son of a WWII Medal of Honor winner remembers of his dad and his peers, “For them, responsibility was their juice. They loved responsibility. They took it head-on, and anytime they could get a task and be responsible, that was what really got em’ going.”
And when the Greatest Generation accepted responsibility for something, they also accepted all the consequences of that decision, whether good or bad. They were not a generation of whiners or excuse makers. They took pride in personal accountability. In a time where individuals and businesses reach for a bailout or the easy fix of bankruptcy to make things right, stories like that of Wesley Ko inspire. Soon after the war, Ko started a printing business. After 35 years of working hard to transform it into a successful company, he decided to relocate his business from Philadelphia to upstate New York. Ko personally guaranteed the 1.3 million dollar loan needed to make the move. The transition did not go as expected, and Ko’s company faced several setbacks; after only a year, he was forced to go out of business. Ko said, “It was a big decision making time. I couldn’t retire. I hadn’t taken out Social Security. So at the age of seventy I had to go get a job and start paying back that million-dollar loan. I just didn’t feel comfortable with declaring bankruptcy. I just didn’t think it was the honorable thing to do, even though it would have been easier.”
Lesson #2: Be Frugal
If your grandparents are anything like mine, then their house is stuffed with doodads and boxes of stuff. They have a sort of pack rat mentality because they grew up in the Great Depression where the next canister of oats or pair of pants was not guaranteed. They learned to live on less and be grateful for the things they had, no matter how humble. It didn’t take a new Xbox to brighten their Christmas morning; an orange at the bottom of a stocking was enough to knock their socks off.
This was not the generation that purchased Corvettes to soothe their mid-life crisis, nor the generation that equated success with the purchase of a McMansion. This was the generation that was thrilled to move into the small houses of Levittown, which at 750 square feet were as big as some people’s garages are today.
One of the mottos of the Greatest Generation was “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Of course, it’s hard to “make it do” if you don’t know how to fix it, and thus handiness was also central to this generation’s frugality.
Tom Brokaw remembers this about his own dad:
“My father, Red Brokaw, was a blue-ribbon member of that fix-it generation. My mother learned not to say aloud what she needed, say a new ironing board, because my father would immediately build her one. She liked to buy something from the store occasionally. 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.”
Lesson #3: Be Humble
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.
“The World War II generation did what was expected of them. But they never talked about it. It was part of the Code. There’s no more telling metaphor than a guy in a football game who does what’s expected of him–makes an open-field tackle–then gets up and dances around. When Jerry Kramer threw the block that won the Ice Bowl in ’67, he just got up and walked off the field.”
Lesson #4: Love Loyally
The men of the Greatest Generation took their marriage vows seriously. Brokaw wrote, “It was the last generation in which, broadly speaking, marriage was a commitment and divorce was not an option. I can’t remember one of my parents’ friends who was divorced. In the communities where we lived it was treated as a minor scandal.” The numbers bear Brokaw’s anecdotal evidence out: of all the new marriages in 1940, 1 in 6 ended in divorce. By the late 1990’s, that number was 1 in 2.
This was a time where there was no hanging out or “hooking up.” Men asked women on real dates, and had serious intentions in doing so. When a particular gal caught a man’s heart, he proposed, and they got hitched. 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 never went to sleep until I wrote John a letter. I wrote every single day. I wouldn’t break the routine because I thought it would keep him safe.” When John got home, he and Peggy picked up right where they left off. John would sometimes have nightmares about the war, and Peggy was always there to comfort him. John said, “The war helped me to love Peggy more, if that’s possible. To appreciate her more.” Their commitment to each other was unshakeable. Peggy believes that young couples today, “don’t fight enough. It’s too easy to get a divorce. We’ve had our arguments, but we don’t give up. When my friends ask whether I ever considered divorce, I remind them of the old saying, ‘We’ve thought about killing each other, but divorce? Never.'”
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. These days we’re quick to think that anyone who gets married in their early 20’s and is married for decades after that, is bound to be living a life of quiet desperation. Yet I’ve met a lot of Greatest Generation couples and almost all of them are and were quite happy together. They’re companions and best friends. What’s their secret? The answer can really be found in changing expectations. As Brokaw observes, “When they got married and began families it was not a matter of thinking, “Well, let’s see how this works out.” Some would argue that marriages were less happy because divorce wasn’t an option. 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? Maybe things wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t think there was an escape hatch, and you knew that whatever bumps you hit in the road, you had to work through them together.
Lesson #5: Work Hard
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. They didn’t fall into the fallacy that Mike Rowe has been busy denouncing, that you have to find “your passion” to be happy. They could find happiness in any job they did, because they weren’t just working for personal, self-fulfillment; they labored for a bigger purpose: to give their families the financial security they hadn’t enjoyed growing up.
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.
Lesson #6: Embrace Challenge
The Greatest Generation wasn’t the greatest despite the challenges they faced, but because of them. Today many men shirk challenge and difficult pursuits, believing that the easier life is, the happier they’ll be. But our grandfathers knew better. They knew that one 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.
Lesson #7: Don’t Make Life So Damn Complicated
If there’s a common thread in these lessons, it’s having a common sense and a level-headed approach to life. In our day, when men are obsessing about finding themselves, their holy grail of a woman, and their “passion,” the Greatest Generation’s uncomplicated approach to life is refreshing. They didn’t go on a diet, they simply ate whole food; they didn’t exercise, they worked around the house; they didn’t obsess about their relationships, they just found a gal they loved and married her. They always looked sharp, but never fussed with fashion trends. They didn’t mull over which appliance better suited their personality and image, they just bought the machine that worked the best. They didn’t think about how to get things done, they just got em’ done. When Joe Foss, a celebrated and daring WWII pilot and then governor of South Dakota was asked if he missed his younger days, he said, “Oh no. I’m not a guy who missed anything from anywhere. I’ve always been a guy who just gets up and goes.” Instead of spending you time navel gazing your life away, just get up and go!
Last updated: October 12, 2015