COVID, calamities, inflation got you down? Fight back like the World War II generation

Greg Nash

Former Sen. Bob Dole’s passing and the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor brought to mind lessons his generation bequeathed to those of us who knew them. Like Dole, my father served as an Army officer in Italy during World War II. Fortunately, as an ordnance specialist, he drew duty in an operations base near Naples and avoided the bloody combat that wounded Dole for life. 

Yet, the stories that my dad and mother told of those frightening days bolster me in these uncertain times. At the height of their courtship in 1941, they endured my dad’s conscription into the Army a few days before Pearl Harbor. While they hated to part, for my father, whose family had suffered the loss of their home during the Great Depression, “the War,” as they would always refer to the second global conflagration in their lifetime, offered opportunities for education and travel he never could have achieved in civilian life. Lesson 1: Find something beneficial even in the most turbulent times.

Spared assignment to the infantry by scoring well on a battery of tests at the induction center, Dad shipped off to basic training and then Officer Candidate School at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. After completing OCS, he knew he had enough pay to support marriage, so he phoned the love of his life to propose. On a brief leave in November 1942, he raced home for the nuptials. Over their 62 years of marriage, Mother occasionally would bring out linens or a ceramic plate to show me and remark that, because of “the War’s” shortages, these represented their only wedding gifts. Lesson 2: Let’s stop complaining about some pandemic kinks in our usually efficient supply chain. 

On Christmas Eve 1944, Dad put Mother on a train for her solitary journey home to her parents, right before he shipped out to Italy. Troops occupied nearly all the seats, but a chivalrous soldier offered the distraught young bride his space. “I’ll go back to the Club Car,” he jovially told my mom, which she remembered forever. Lesson 3: As we begin our holiday travels in the age of COVID, let’s remember to be civil, especially to airport personnel and flight attendants. The admonition to behave during WWII was, “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” We are battling a virus, so “Keep calm and carry on,” as our British allies declared during the wave of bombings from the German Luftwaffe. 

My parents had settled into post-war suburban life, rearing three Boomers in the 1950s, when my father began to lose his eyesight — a catastrophe for his chosen profession of photo engraving at the Louisville Courier-Journal. One of the last times he drove a car was to rush Mother to the hospital for my birth. By my early childhood, he was legally blind yet soldiered on for another two decades at his job, using a small magnifying glass to examine photographic details. By the time he retired on disability, under doctor’s orders, his colleagues asked, “What’s your disability?” In the years before Bob Dole fashioned the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, no accommodations existed for disabled workers, so Dad kept his dwindling eyesight to himself, for fear of losing his job. Lesson 4: “We do what we have to do,” he would say whenever challenges arose. “Manage life, rather than just cope,” he once advised me in a letter.

We complain about a 6.8 percent inflation rate now — and certainly many Americans are suffering economic hardship — but as my parents entered retirement on a fixed income, inflation skyrocketed to double that number in 1980. “Dollar-cost averaging!” my dad preached,  becoming a self-taught investor. He put a bit of money aside each month in mutual funds to ride out the stock market’s ups and downs and purchased long-term CDs at equally inflated interest rates to protect principal while earning amazing returns. Lesson 5: Living within modest means, and prudent saving, can make you “The Millionaire Next Door,” to cite the title of a 1996 book about how wealth can be accumulated even by the working class. Lesson 6: Unions are a boon to wage-earners. Though my father often put in 12-hour days, including night shifts, and suffered through a workers’ strike, his Graphic Artists Union collectively bargained for increased overtime wages, pensions and health care benefits, which ensured some comfort for my parents in their “golden years.”

My Greatest Generation mentor, University of Virginia constitutional scholar Henry J. Abraham, exemplified an imperturbable approach to life. Having escaped from the Nazis in 1937, no subsequent challenge ever seemed to faze him. “I’m an optimist,” he would proclaim, despite having witnessed the worst that human nature can produce. When faced with momentary setbacks, he never lost hope for the future. Lesson 7: “What not is can still be,” he would advise his students.

Just the other day, I spoke to a former neighbor, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday. She is the last of my Greatest Generation family, friends and colleagues. Asked her secret to longevity, she responded with advice as sharp as her astounding mind. Lesson 8: “Avoid prescription drugs and have a vodka or whiskey each evening!” my centenarian buddy suggested. 

Let us all raise a cup of cheer — alcoholic or not — this holiday season and hope for a new year filled with the wit, wisdom, courage and insight of those born in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Barbara A. Perry is Presidential Studies director and Gerald L. Baliles Professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Follow her on Twitter @BarbaraPerryUVA.

Tags #coronavirus COVID-19 Bob Dole Greatest Generation Inflation World War II

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