Last summer my grandson gave me a gift of immeasurable value. No money could buy it. No kit, card or celebration could ever have given me the sense of meaning I now have. By listening to me, he gave me relevance.
So often, I’ve seen young people’s eyes glaze over when an old person shares a bit of his own history. But we might have something worthwhile to say that young folks might otherwise never know.
This winter has given me time to remember last summer and to ask myself what can I give him in return. What did my parents give me? What sort of world did we have then, and what sort of world will I pass on to my grandson?
We lost our farm in 1938. The Depression lasted a long time in Waterloo, Iowa, where I grew up. I remember watching out the back window of our old Hudson as our home disappeared, my mother crying and my father’s stony silence.
World War II seemed to surprise everybody. Soon, every Monday was “savings stamp day.” Each child came to school with coins and sometimes dollars to buy war stamps to paste in a book that, when filled, would be exchanged for a war bond. Our neighbor, Max Hartong, became a Marine and went to the South Pacific.
Sometimes President Franklin D. Roosevelt would talk to us on the radio in a calm, reassuring voice, guiding us through the tumult of daily war reports from Europe and the Pacific. The time we lost the Sullivan brothers, all five of them, our town noted it and went on with our work. We had a war to win. We were a nation in unity. Besides I had bacon grease, used tires and milkweed pods to collect for the war. We, I mean we, won that war and lost our president.
Our new President Harry Truman surveyed the ruin that was Europe and the Far East. He spoke to Congress, and it was decided that we would help. We had a strong manufacturing base. We had a skilled, educated workforce. Together, we began to win the peace and rebuild the world.
We had hundreds of thousands of returning veterans. Our government decided that it would help them by sending them all to school. The G.I. Bill cost a lot but few complained. We owed a huge national debt, but we borrowed more and educated a generation. Our economy grew and young families moved into new homes and our people grew.
Occasionally our new peace was stressed. The Berlin airlift comes to mind. The contentious peace talks eventually grew to the Cold War. Korea and Vietnam tried to break us, but we survived. President Dwight Eisenhower thought we needed a national infrastructure, so we borrowed billions, built roads, bridges, hospitals and high schools, and we all prospered, together. Throughout our history we understood e pluribus unum and we lived it. At least we did until Reagan.
Reagan was merely a creature of the times. We, the United States, were growing richer, and some folks discovered almost universal progress was not enough. They wanted it all, so Reagan said fine. He gave us a welfare queen — a lie — and the grandeur of greed. Lessons many learned too well.
In those words we have seeds of today’s hardships. A significant portion of the American population, the top 1 percent, believe the rest of us want too much. We, too, would like a chance, a good education, without debt for the rest of our life. We would like a chance for medical care without losing our home. Maybe even a world that is not doomed to set itself on fire through environmental degradation.
These observations wash over me with a profound sense of loss. We Americans have lost our pole star. From 1776 until Reagan, we understood our power, and our safety lay in our unity as a nation. Now we do not have that. Our survival as a people require that we work together.
Petty bickering about a “one-term president” must be discarded. Small-minded men must not be allowed to work their will on us to break our friendship and compassion for others only to serve their own greedy purposes. We need to refute the idea that the very wealthy ought not to pay taxes and that we others must pay them. We have to repeat “one nation, indivisible” and rededicate ourselves to that ideal.
So what of my legacy to my grandson and all my grandchildren? It’s all I have to give them. My thirst for understanding, my love of justice and honesty are all I have. Further, I wish them the right to be angry about the fact that the good things of life are not shared between those of us who brought them to us all and those who have bought our government and our courts.
Like me, I hope they question critically those who wish to place greed, personal station and power over the collective good. After all, don’t we all deserve the next breath?
James Scroggy, 78, lives in Blue Hill. He served two years in the Army National Guard, four years in the U.S. Air Force and two years in the inactive Air Force reserve. He is a 1965 graduate of the University of Maine and later worked as a psychotherapist in private practice in New York.