Excerpt from The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Greatest Generation

by Tom Brokaw

The Greatest Generation
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  • First Published:
    Nov 1998, 412 pages
    May 2001, 412 pages

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"I don't think my teaching would be the same now," she says. "I learned about patriotism through my school and family and I don't think you can get those values across in schools now. It's a little square to say you're patriotic. I would like to think that if the United States were attacked we'd band together, but I'm not sure." If there's a common lament of this generation, that is it: where is the old-fashioned patriotism that got them through so much heartache and sacrifice?

Marion Rivers, who married Karl Nittel after the war, wonders about that when she visits cemeteries to decorate graves on Memorial Day. "They never found my husband's brother, who was lost at sea. For many years I kept his gold naval wings in my jewelry box. Recently I gave them to his daughter, who was just two months old when he died. She never knew him. The war never ends; there are so many memories." Marion's husband keeps his World War II Army uniform hanging neatly in his closet wherever their live, a mute reminder of a time when he answered the call to duty.

Marion and Karl stayed in the Attleboro area, raising a son and a daughter. In 1968 she went back to work and developed a successful career as a writer for a technical company, the first woman in that firm to head a department. Nonetheless, she worries that too many women these days are more interested in work than they are in their family, simply because they want to have more things. As a child of the Depression, Marion doesn't remember that being a bad time because "all the neighbors got together to help each other. At Christmas they would go into the basements of their homes to make the gifts. No one has time for families anymore."

Marion's connection to the war years was brought painfully home when her daughter died of cancer at the age of forty-three. She then knew the full force of losing a child, and she thought of all those parents whose sons didn't return from the war. She was middle-aged when her daughter died, and it was a difficult flashback to the time that was at once so exciting and so difficult.

Alison Campbell had a similar midlife challenge. Her husband left her when she was fifty-five. She had not worked since the war. "That experience made me fairly tough. I took unfamiliar steps then, and I could do it again." She was also reading Betty Friedan's seminal book on the place of modern women, The Feminine Mystique. It spoke directly to her own conflicted life. Here she was, a highly educated woman, and yet when she had to go back into the workplace she took secretarial classes because she was so stuck in the strictures of her generation.

She got a secretarial job, but she moved up steadily before retiring as a technical writer and editor for IBM. Now she volunteers at a women's center, where they often refer to her a new generation of women who suddenly find themselves alone. Alison shares her stories of the war years, the husband abroad, the midlife divorce, and the lessons she learned.

After five years as a teacher, Scottie Lingelbach studied for a real estate license and started still another career. "The war made me self-reliant," she says. "I went to Washington not knowing anyone. My parents helped shape me. My father was very stern. He said, 'I'll educate you but then you're on your own.' When he gave me money to pay my way to officer's training, you can bet I had to pay it back."

Scottie stayed in real estate for eleven years, until the downturn in the eighties, but then she grew restless again and decided it was time to return to her origins. She moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where she had begun her adventurous life as a KU freshman in 1940. When she returned, the world had changed, but Scottie's values had not.

One of her daughters is divorced, a fact of modern life Scottie still finds unsettling. "Never did I realize it would happen in my family. Divorce was so uncommon." Not just uncommon, a bit of a scandal for Scottie's generation. That's not all that troubles her.

Use of this material may be made only for the purpose of promoting The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw, with no editing - except for length - or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: Copyright © 1998 by Tom Brokaw. All rights reserved.

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