I only saw America smile twice.
She beamed on the day in 1969 when she landed a man on the moon. And she was radiant that summer 60 years ago when World War II, which touched the lives of every citizen in every hamlet, ended.
If you were a child in Cleveland, World War II was a greater part of your life than the sum of your toys, games and sweets. You were aware of it through the radio newscasts. And even if you could not read the newspapers, you could fathom the grimness of the bold, black headlines.
The food at the dinner table was a reminder, too, because much of it was rationed.
No place was the war more evident than at Terminal Tower’s Union Station, where cigarette smoke, blue and wispy, floated above, and the arrivals and departures of trains were announced around the clock.
An urgency bound the crowds that gathered at the train gates.
You could sense the sadness of the long goodbyes on the concourse where families lingered, trying to squeeze an eternity out of their possible last moments together.
I have often wondered how many loved ones had their final embrace in that train station. I cannot walk into Tower City today without being haunted by those memories from long ago.
Nobody talked about death, even though you knew it was war’s byproduct. My family was fortunate — seven uncles and one cousin served as combat veterans and returned safely.
You knew the shoulder patches they wore: the Big Red One, Hell on Wheels, the 42nd Division’s rainbow and the 101st’s eagle. But you had no idea where they had been or what they had seen.
Mail was censored. Servicemen were forbidden to tell the people at home about their whereabouts or activities, creating a merciful vagueness to their location that was a blessing.
No television was another gift. It seems incomprehensible to witness World War II and the unparalleled horrors it staged in the way we have seen more recent conflicts.
Instead of television, magazines such as Life, Look, the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s offered a more sanitized version of the war, casting an almost wholesome nature to the endeavor.
A gold star hung in the window of a house on the next street to signify that someone in the family had been killed in action. The woman who lived in the house never seemed to come out and we kids never liked to go nearby because it seemed so dark and sad. We did not understand that it was a place in deep mourning.
My best memories are of the radio. It seemed to be on all day with news flashes and those wonderful cereal-sponsored serials, featuring “The Lone Ranger,” “Terry and the Pirates,” “Green Hornet” and myriad others.
But even those changed. Following Pearl Harbor, the Green Hornet’s faithful valet, Kato, ceased to be of Japanese descent. (The storyline revealed that his family was actually from China.) The older kids laughed about that.
No matter your age, you knew about rationing. Everyone had his own ration stamps that were used to purchase items such as meat, coffee and margarine, often after waiting in seemingly interminable lines. And I don’t even remember tasting butter until long after the war.
Since new-car production had stopped and gasoline was rationed, travel was an equalizer. People of all races and economic classes rode the aging streetcar system that crisscrossed the town.
But the joy that swept Blythin Road in Garfield Heights the day the war ended is my strongest memory. Women clanged on pans with wooden spoons, car horns honked, neighbors poured into the street and toasts were made with what little whiskey was available. The men built a huge bonfire of newspapers that had been saved for the war effort, leaving a spot of scorched asphalt that served as a reminder of that spontaneous celebration for years.
Then the boys began to come home, and the street took on a new life. Many in my neighborhood did not rush to find work, but instead played countless hours of street baseball. The tree lawn of our house was the right-field foul line.
For them, there must have been a tranquil quality to the afternoons after so many dark days.
Tom Brokaw labeled the veterans of this war the Greatest Generation, a term that those who have survived accept reluctantly. Indeed, they were a different generation, we now know, different in time and experience.
Many were already hardened to the realities of life by the Depression. It was almost as if those dark economic times were preparation for the hardship that was to follow.
When it ended, 60 years ago this summer, the men who had fought and won a global war returned home to resume their lives, having served their country well. Over the years, this generation would propel America to even greater heights.
The GI Bill enabled 8 million veterans to get education and work experience that primed the American economy for the next two decades. Their experience in war produced a work ethic, a common sense that was tough, direct and, above all, built on respect.
Having seen the world, veterans could compare life in America with far-off places where there was little opportunity and scant freedom. They could weigh the importance of these values as it related to their lives.
Flash-forward to present. I am sitting in an auditorium at Cleveland State University, where community leaders, educators and businesspeople are discussing the plight of the city.
The discussion turns to developing new jobs. A business owner stands and says his company has jobs, but is having a hard time finding good workers.
“People don’t come to work on time; when they arrive, they don’t work at the job,” he said. “They don’t seem interested.”
One of the civic leaders responds by saying there have been many concerns about the lack of “soft skills” in the city.
I turn to the CSU professor sitting next to me and ask what “soft skills” meant.
“Oh, getting up in the morning, showering, dressing properly and getting to work on time,” he says.
I am stunned. If “soft skills” were a problem 60 years ago, history would be decidedly different. An awful thought dawns: Are we just living off the capital that the Greatest Generation earned?