Born in the 1930s, we exist as a very special age cohort. We are the “last ones.” We are the last, climbing out of the Depression, who can remember the winds of war and the war itself with fathers and uncles going off. We are the last to remember ration books for everything from sugar to shoes to stoves. We saved tin foil and poured fat into tin cans. We saw cars up on blocks because tires weren’t available. My own mother delivered milk in a horse-drawn cart.
We are the last to hear Roosevelt’s radio assurances and to see gold stars in the front windows of our grieving neighbors. We can also remember the parades on Aug. 15, 1945 — VJ Day.
We saw the “boys” home from the war build their Cape-style houses, pouring the cellar, tar papering it over and living there until they could afford the time and money to build it out.
We are the last who spent childhood without television; instead imagining what we heard on the radio. As we all like to brag, with no TV we spent our childhood playing outside until the street lights came on. We did play outside and we did play on our own. There was no Little League.
The lack of television in our early years meant, for most of us, that we had little real understanding of what the world was like. Our Saturday afternoons at the movies gave us newsreels of the war and the Holocaust sandwiched in between westerns and cartoons. Newspapers and magazines were written for adults. We are the last who had to find out for ourselves.
As we grew up, the country was exploding with growth. The G.I. Bill gave returning veterans the means to get an education and spurred colleges to grow. VA loans fanned a housing boom. Pent-up demand coupled with new installment payment plans put factories to work. New highways would bring jobs and mobility. The veterans joined civic clubs and became active in politics. In the late ’40s and early ’50s the country seemed to lie in the embrace of brisk but quiet order as it gave birth to its new middle class.
Our parents often became absorbed with their own new lives. They were free from the confines of the Depression and the war. They threw themselves into exploring opportunities they had never imagined. We weren’t neglected, but we weren’t today’s all-consuming family focus. They were glad we played by ourselves “until the street lights came on.” They were busy discovering the post-war world.
Most of us had no life plan, but with the unexpected virtue of ignorance and an economic rising tide, we simply stepped into the world and went to find out. We entered a world of overflowing plenty and opportunity, a world where we were welcomed. Based on our naïve belief that there was more where this came from, we shaped life as we went.
We enjoyed a luxury; we felt secure in our future. Of course, just as today, not all Americans shared in this experience.
The Korean War was a dark presage in the early ’50s and by mid-decade schoolchildren were ducking under desks. China became Red China. Eisenhower sent the first “advisers” to Vietnam. Castro set up camp in Cuba and Khrushchev came to power.
We are the last to experience an interlude when there were no existential threats to our homeland. We came of age in the late ’40s and early ’50s. The war was over, and the Cold War, terrorism, climate change, technological upheaval and perpetual economic insecurity had yet to haunt life with insistent unease.
Only we can remember both a time of apocalyptic war and a time when our world was secure and full of bright promise and plenty. We experienced both. We are “the last ones.”
Carl D. “Pete” Peterson is a resident of Brookfield.