As I passed out the song sheets for our "Songs of the Two World Wars" sing-along, the residents took them eagerly. My husband John and I were at The Oak Park Arms to sing songs that were inextricably linked to two great efforts of our country to restore liberty to the world; many of those reaching for the song sheets had taken an active military role in the second of those efforts. We were there to honor both those who had fought overseas and those who had done their part at the home front by buying war bonds, rationing and singing the songs of the war.
I was somewhat surprised at the depth of familiarity the residents had with the World War I songs. I remember how my father laughed when I asked him which world war he had been in. There were no veterans of Number One here, but all were enthusiastically (and sheet-lessly) singing George M. Cohan's "Over There" and the WWI ballads we had included in the program. How had they become so intimately familiar with songs that had been popular long before they were born? That's easy: they had sung them as schoolchildren (a woman told me this after the program). So the World War II generation was raised on WWI songs.
When we came to the section of the program that divided the armed services into its different branches, we asked for a show of hands in order to honor each group; before we sang "The Marine's Hymn" a whole row of women identified themselves as being part of the Marine Corps. Some in the audience identified with the Navy song "Anchors Aweigh" and the army vets raised their hands for "The Caissons Go Rolling Along."
Before we sang "The Army Air Corps" a gentleman in the front row, whose enthusiastic singing I had already noticed, raised his hand to identify himself as an Air Force man. There was something ramrod straight about him that the years hadn't been able to bend. Watching him sing, I was reminded of my father's serviceman song book that had been issued to him while he was a young tailgunner. The book's existence proved that someone in 1942 still believed in Robert E. Lee's adage, which stated: "An army cannot win without good music." The fighting men of WWII must have attended regular sing-alongs (which would have delighted my music-loving father). As I watched this former Army Air Corps man in the front row, it was easy to picture him as a young "fly boy," singing his heart out at a military sing-along.
Laura Manning, who is a friend, inspiration and singer par excellence, had warned me earlier about the song "My Buddy." She sang it once to a group of veterans from both world wars who had openly wept at her performance; it was all she could do to muster her Broadway-earned professionalism to finish the song.
As I began singing: "Nights are long since you went away?" I looked out on the audience. No one was using the song sheet but everyone was singing. No one seemed to be weeping; no one, that is, except me.
Two thoughts had suddenly hit me like a navy torpedo: how many of these people singing this song had lost a comrade-in-arms? A sibling? A spouse? What had "My Buddy" meant to them in previous years? When was the last time, before this moment, that they had sung it?
My second thought was that these people who can sing "Over There" and "My Buddy" from memory are the last of a heartbreakingly unique generation. Trying to describe the import of WWII veterans to our Tolkien-savvy children, John likens them to Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin, the hobbits who saved Middle Earth from the evil Sauron and his powerful ring. In a way, the young men of WWII were just as self-effacing about their exploits as were the humble little hobbits of Tolkien's saga. Only the veterans of the second World War are non-fiction heroes who rid the world of non-fiction evil.
What hit me between the eyes (and made them water) was the fact that we are losing this generation too soon and they are a national treasure. Not only did they save the world in their time, but there is something harder to pin down about them, something priceless that will be forever missed with their passing. They personify a certain dignity, grace and character that has been largely missing from succeeding generations. It's not that grace and dignity took a hike after 1945, but there is something lost on baby boomers and "X'ers" that our parents seem to possess without even trying. The "greatest generation" was raised by those born in or close to the 19th century, a completely different era that had a completely different perspective. While they may have needed their children to teach them about racial equality, these people who lived through a depression and saved the world might have taught us much about certain character traits that we, as a generation, don't seem to possess.
Perhaps we have not always been the best of pupils. Perhaps while saving their children from the privations and difficulties they once knew, they inadvertently deprived those children of the chance to be like them.
When the program was completely finished and I was making my way through the hallway, I noticed a case on the wall that contained portraits, some black and white, some colorized in that distinctive 40's-era way. All of the portrait subjects were youthful and all were in military uniform. I wanted to go back in time and ask them?what was it I wanted to ask them? I wanted to ask them how they did it, how they found the courage to save their entire world. They looked back at me as if to say, "we found the courage in our day, you find it in yours." I wanted to say, "but this is a more complex and difficult time. By the way, are you for or against the war in Iraq?"
If I had asked that question of their real-life counterparts, the answers might have been as variegated as a tweed skirt (or perhaps only as bi-colored as a political map). But these portraits seemed to say: "Just have the courage of your convictions and give others the freedom to have theirs. That is what makes America great." Speaking of great: that is one great generation.
Kathryn and John Atwood perform historical music programs on the subject of American song (www.historysingers.com).