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What The Greatest Generation Taught Me

By Suzanne Ruff, AAKP Board of Director, author The Reluctant Donor

Every morning when we awaken, our first thoughts are about how the Coronavirus is ravaging across America and the world. Each hour, more and more innocent people and their families are impacted. We see COVID-19 devastation every moment on our televisions, smart phones and Ipads. We also learn of the heroism of our brave first responders and selfless medical personnel. To gain strength, I think of my family and the lessons they learned from other dark chapters in our shared American history.

The year was 1934 and the country was in the midst of what is called The Great Depression. My Dad was ten years old. His father became sick and entered the hospital, never to return or recover.

In 1941, my Mom was twelve years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor – the event that triggered America’s involvement in World War II.

I wonder today what the younger generation knows about those times. Do they know what the ‘Great Depression’ was? Is it taught in school? Do they know that 2,403 people died at Pearl Harbor? Mom described the worried faces of her parents that day as they gathered around the radio to listen to what happened in Hawaii. Does the younger generation understand there was no TV back then?

Suzanne Ruff, with her late father, John Gill, who served in the 86th Division of the United States Army.  He also served as an AAKP Board member.

Dad told us how his older siblings (five and eight years older) found jobs and gave their paychecks to my grandmother to keep the family afloat. His sister (my aunt) walked a mile to the store where she worked. It saved streetcar fare. Dad, too, at ten years old, did his part. He had a paper route delivering newspapers, giving his pay and tips to his mother. Note, though, that Dad never owned a bicycle. He walked the paper route. Nowadays, most of my neighbors don’t subscribe to a newspaper. News is delivered by the internet, television or (gasp) Facebook and Twitter. Years later, Dad switched to a different high school to save a nickel – 5 measly cents. It was the streetcar fare to the high school he had really wanted to attend. But, because his mother was still struggling and his brother and sister were married, Dad changed high schools. Family first.

Mom always said her carefree childhood changed on December 7, 1941. War was declared after the events of Pearl Harbor. She was the youngest of my grandparents six children, three boys and three girls. Mom’s brothers went off to fight in the war. Americans at home were asked to support the armed forces. Mom told of how she went with her Mother to volunteer at the Red Cross where she remembered “making bandages.” Mom loved meeting soldiers who were processed though Chicago; she helped as the Red Cross provided coffee and donuts. Mom often talked about contributing and working to help The War Fund. Patriotism was robust. People bonded together. The country united to raise funds so the country could protect itself after the terror and the crisis of being attacked on American soil. Americans were asked to donate and reach a goal that was surpassed by everyone uniting together. President Roosevelt called the War Fund efforts of the American people the “greatest single crusade of mercy in all of history.”

Sigh. I show my age now as I tsk, tsk, tsk about the younger generation. I fret about how they are handling the COVID-19 Pandemic. It will be the defining moment in many of their lives. I see the American spirit coming through, though, as so many Americans stay home to stop the spread of the virus. People are making sacrifices.

Will they know my Dad’s motto? God, Faith and Family? Or his way of prodding us in life to ‘dig in, work together, make do with what we have, don’t waste, be frugal, and save for a rainy day’. More serious than mom, Dad was always reminding us life is hard and life isn’t fair, stay off the ‘pity pot’, do your part and God will get you through it. His energy was impressive; work hard and never give up, (a ‘keep your nose to the grindstone’ kind of guy).

Mom was always full of sunshine and good humor (a ‘count your blessings’ kind of gal), along with a great deal of grit and determination, too. Mom’s family suffered with a genetic disease that later wreaked havoc on their lives causing great heartache and pain. Her motto was similar: Faith in God can get you through anything even when you don’t understand why it is so hard. Life goes on and you must go on, too. Be strong. Hold your head up high. Do the right thing and you can never go wrong.

I once wrote a newspaper story about a visit I made with Dad to a park dedicated to War veterans, dating from the Civil War to the Iraq War. As a WWII vet, Dad choked up reading the plaques in memory of the soldiers and said, “I’ve gotten through my life . . . by the grace of God.” When we left the park, Dad commented, “World War II saved the world from evil! And, now we are still fighting evil. Evil exists.” 

Evil? Whether in the form of a highly contagious virus called COVID-19, an economic collapse, an attack by an enemy that results in war, life isn’t for the timid.

My parents’ nuggets of wisdom sift through my mind. Americans have united to solve the Pandemic. Lessons of courage amid the heroes helping those of us sequestered in our homes. The exhausted, worried and blessed doctors, nurses and health care workers, the police, fire and medics, the essential businesses that are open, the truck drivers, the scientists, the grocery and delivery people, and the unseen number of exhausted people giving their all to help us through this Pandemic.

Faith, strength, kindness, good humor, discipline, and examples of greatness taught by those who went before us. The country will come through this “by the grace of God.”