Carrying our Burden: The Military and the Rest of Us

NOTE; From my archives (one of my first posts) August 8, 2006

Military family The National Military Families Association is an old client of mine and today I'm meeting their former CEO for lunch. She and I had hoped to use her site and some of the "women's" content sites to begin to bridge the chasm between military and non-military families. Who if not the women would be capable of that? I had just read Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point, a wonderful book about West Point and leadership so was particularly interested in removing the stereotypes and isolation suffered by the military in my formative, actively anti-war youth. We were unable to interest most of the women's sites into doing anything without payment though; it was quite sad.

When I think of 9/11 and of the Iraq War – and remember how my parents used to talk about the "GIs" and their position in the world during World War II, it's particularly unfortunate that we now have a "military class" that is separate from the rest of us in so many ways – and whose parents and children were also likely to be military — so much so that we're worlds apart. Today Oliver Stone told the Washington Post that he thought combat experience "softens you, if anything. It makes you more aware of human frailty and vulnerability. It doesn't make you a coward, but it does teach you. " Yet, as he noted in this interview, none of our current political leaders has any combat experience at all. I know we need to end this division, but I have two sons and what seems sensible in the abstract is horrifying in the concrete. I have many friends whose kids have gone to live in Israel, for example, and they seem to accept the fact of their sons' military obligation with equinimity but I don't know if I could. And I"m not sure if it's the scars of Vietnam and even more recent futile endeavors or rank selfishness on my part…. More later.

Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck and Roman Holiday: a Political Lesson? No, Really.


It was a fairy tale about a princess on a journey. Doing her duty, kind of like Diana (but, since she was played by Audrey Hepburn, even classier,) she came to Rome, after Athens, London and Paris, to conclude her mission.

But she was young and beautiful and sick of receptions and parades. And so, in the middle of the night, she snuck out the embassy window and ventured across the Piazza di Spagna and into the Roman night.

If you know this movie at all, you remember with sweet nostalgia the way you felt the first time you saw it.  The princess asleep near the Trevi Fountain on the Roman equivalent of a park bench is awakened, like Sleeping Beauty, by reporter Joe Bradley, played by Gregory Peck. ( If the film has a flaw, it’s that we know some of what will happen once we see him there.  He’s a good guy and that’s who he plays.  He is Atticus Finch, after all.)
The film was released in 1953, right in the middle of the 1950’s.  Written by Dalton Trumbo, “Roman Holiday” was credited to a “front” named Ian McLellan Hunter, because Trumbo, blacklisted as a member of the Hollywood Ten, wasn’t permitted to write for movies any longer.  It’s one of the darkest chapters in Hollywood history, very much a part of the image of the decade and a sad facet of a beloved film that won three Oscars and introduced the world to Audrey Hepburn.
There’s something else though.  The people in this film behave well.  There are things that they want, desperately, but there are principals at stake, and they honor them.  When Peck meets Hepburn, he doesn’t recognize her but lets her crash at his apartment.  Once he figures out who she is, he knows this “runaway”  could be the story of his life.  Even so, after a brief, idyllic tour of the city, (SPOILER ALERT) she honors her responsibilities and returns to her royal duties, and of course, he never writes the story.  It was very much an artifact of the
“Greatest Generation” ideals, manifested with such courage during
WWII and very much the flip side of the jaundiced (and just as accurate) Mad Men view of the 50’s.  Duty and honor trump romance and ambition. 

Once again, I’m struck with admiration for the people of these times.  Yes the 50’s did terrible damage and made it difficult to be eccentric or rebellious or even creative.  But films like this one, or Now Voyager and similar films of the 40’s, sentimental as they may be, remind us of what else these people were.  They’d lived through the Depression and the war and they had an elevated sense of responsibility.  As we watch much of our government (and some of the rest of us) disintegrate into partisanship and self-interest, it makes a lot more sense than it did when we rose up against it all in the 1960’s.  Doesn’t it?


Kalish_brides008_9They’re all gone now – my mom and my aunts. Here they are at the wedding of Barbara, the youngest, who died this week. My mom, Jeanne, the oldest, gone since 1998, is the one on the right – that’s my dad next to her. On the left side of the photo is Bettie, and my Uncle Jim.

Growing up in the Depression, they were wartime girls – my mom worked for the Office of Price Administration — the agency that controlled prices and tried to prevent gouging and war profiteering. She met my dad there – his hearing loss prevented him from active military duty so he fought unscrupulous businessmen instead. Bettie was in the WAVES. Barb, the youngest, came of age closer to the war’s end; her husband Bob was a Ranger, decorated several times.

The Depression had been hard on them. My grandfather was unable to bring in much. It was so traumatic that once, when Bettie started to talk about putting cardboard in their shoes to cover the holes, my mother cut her off. We were in a car, the three of us, and Bettie was just kind of spinning yarns. But to my mother she was raising things better left alone. I have always understood that these three sisters – so lovely and happy here — went through plenty. I also understood that they were not alone; no one their age was untouched by the Depression and the war.

I’ve come to realize over the years that my parents’ Depression experiences had a profound effect on me. Not only did I read menus from the price to the item – and check dangling price tags before examining clothing on a rack. That was the obvious stuff I inherited. Beyond it though was a sense of sadness for them all. My mother, who was an artist, got a scholarship in education, so she because a teacher. My father, who wanted to be an architect, got a scholarship to law school so he became a lawyer. My Uncle Bob was to be a veterinarian but his wartime injuries impaired his movement too much for him to be able to lift the animals so his dream died too. That was just how it was.

In some ways, they were the lucky ones; all three sisters and my father and uncles — were able, on scholarships, to go to college. All three marriages, despite tensions and tough times, survived with a real friendship between spouses for most of their lives. Each had three children who were smart, interesting, and self-sufficient. Even so, the bounty of choices they gave to us was so much more than they had had themselves. The young women in this photograph, and their husbands, never had the luxury of dropping out of school to campaign for Eugene McCarthy or majoring in music or theater or spending years doing trauma medicine a couple of months a year to pay for a life of mountain climbing and exploration. There was no give, no leeway, in the lives of those whom the Depression and the war that ended it – had stamped forever.

None of that shows here, of course. It’s a wedding. There’s no hint of all the scars the Depression had left on them, no hint of the loved ones and friends lost to World War II, no indication of the profound pain of watching a father who couldn’t support them and a mother who was permanently enraged. Nope. This was a wedding day and a lovely one at that. Tonight – well tonight I’m thinking of what it must have been like as the third sister, the baby sister, married. Who, I wonder, was missing – lost to the war. Who, I wonder, were the absent friends lost to the jolt of economic inequality when their parents retained a steady income and my grandparents could not. What are the stories my sisters and cousins and I will never know?

When we cleaned out my mom’s apartment I found the strangest thing: the Phi Beta Kappa key of the husband of one of my mother’s best childhood friends — a woman whose first husband had died early in the war. Why did my mother have it instead of her? What, if anything, had been between them when they were young? To me, the key is a symbol of all that was never said – the reserve of this brave and noble generation who didn’t want us to know how tough it really was. One picture and so many random thoughts — probably self-indulgently cobbled together here.

I’m writing this at the beach — the ocean slamming against the shore just steps away. This little barrier island on the Jersey shore has been a family destination since I was little –well more than 50 years — so I’m probably more available for all this nostalgia as memories rise up unfiltered on the sidewalks and sand dunes and ice cream parlors. But that’s not all it is; these thoughts are never very far away and when my sister sent this photo tonight many rose to the surface. I so wish I had asked more questions and said more often “You guys were great, so brave, so remarkable.”At my mothe’s funeral I said something to an old friend of hers about their role as “the Greatest Generation.” He laughed. “We weren’t great Cindy. We just did what we had to do. If you have to, so will you.”

Look at this photo and think of all that touched these young women and their families. If, as they did, we faced more than a decade of economic and political upheaval, wiould we be as strong, as determined?

So long girls. I know we always loved you, but appreciate all you were and all you never got to be? No we didn’t do that. At least not enough.