THE GREATEST GENERATION
That handsome couple in the lower right hand corner of the above picture are my parents, Bud and Mary Lou Hanify, around 1950 at the “Salmon Club” in Port Angeles, Washington. Ballroom dancing was how the Greatest Generation continued their Big Band years into middle-age. Their shoes were polished, their ties and dresses pressed and straight. My father used to sing in front of the bathroom mirror, telling himself what a handsome bastard he was as he shaved, timing his razor strokes with the words of his song. He had a vivid Irish voice, polished to proficiency in southeastern Montana, where the whole family sang through long winter nights. There’s not a tattoo or pierced body part in the world that can substitute for singing yourself warm in a Montana winter!
Because the Greatest Generation matured during World War II, they learned how to embrace life’s beauty without holding on too tight. It was common for me to hear compliments about my mother’s beauty or my father’s rugged handsomeness. The Greatest Generation was charismatic and gracious without being crude. No one used the ‘F’ word in mixed company. They hugged their friends and laughed out loud. They dealt with life on life’s terms, making sure to enjoy the beauty and wonder they found in each other. With humor. Always with good humor. The Greatest Generation lived and loved with well-earned style and grace.
The ones who came home from the war lived life to its fullest, loved with all their hearts, and did everything in their power to put a very dark chapter of world history behind them. I saw many a pained expression whenever the war was mentioned. They were grateful to be home.
GROWING UP BEFORE TELEVISION
Before television was invented, evenings were spent reading or singing or practicing musical instruments. When you have to write your own story, your plot line comes from what you’d like to be and do. For people who are obliged to develop their own story, progress is measured day-by-day, week-to-week. My father dreamed of becoming an actor, so he read Shakespeare and appeared in every school play he could, first in Broadus, then in Kalispel, where the family moved in 1935. He boxed to develop physical prowess. He even took speech lessons from a voice teacher in Kalispell. My mother studied English literature and learned how to work the typesetter at her grandfather Moorhead‘s newspaper, the Cowlitz County Advocate. She ended up publishing over 200 articles and three books. It all started at her grandfather’s typesetter in Castle Rock, Washington.
Before Amazon delivered groceries and household items to your door, people had to make their meals and their homes from what they could put together. If your dog got sick, you had to worm it. If you were hungry, you killed the chicken out back. The women canned, the men took pride in carpentry and home repairs. My Dad was an electrician. He frequently traded wiring jobs for just about anything but money. Since money was a source of anxiety and crushed pride during the Depression, my folks’ generation went out of their way to not talk about it. The way these Depression kids worked was, “I’ll wire your house, you bring your post hole digger over.” “I’ll cut you 20 boards, you bring your mower and rake.” Everyone knew how to do something. There was a sweetness in the way people helped other families. No one put anyone else on the spot about money. The Depression had done that enough. Its survivors were determined to give their fellow man a breath of dignity.
If I was asked to state the biggest difference between my folks and the kids I see now, it is this: they taught us that America was good if you made it good. I never once heard anyone say that one group was bad, and that only government could make it good. That kind of stuff started in the 60s and became the cultural norm in the 90s. My folks’ generation wouldn’t know what you meant by that. If you wanted to make something better, well, I guess you’d best get to work.
This was how my Dad and his buddy Dean Lockhart got around in 1935:
My Grandfather, Charlie Hanify, was born in Sturgis, SD in 1889. He had a job as a ranch hand when he was 16. One of the other hands was a retired lawman. One day the lawman learned that an old enemy was in town looking to kill him. The lawman horsed up at breakfast, rode into town, and shot the man dead, then returned to work. The lawman never said a word about it.
On another occasion, my grandfather was drafted by the local doctor to ride out to where an embankment collapsed, taking man and horse down in a heap, breaking the man’s leg. My grandfather’s job was to hold the man down while the doc cut off his leg. First thing the doc did was hand my granddad a bottle of whisky.
“What’s that for?”
“Take a swig.”
After my granddad took a swig, the doctor poured a long one down the injured man’s throat. My granddad said the man’s screams never left his brain.
That was Frontier America. In 1925, when my Dad was six-years-old, his family transported wood and coal by horse-drawn wagon. In 1965, when I was eight, we sat in front of the TV eating cold cereal and watching cartoons. That’s how much this country changed in 40 years.
If we’re gonna talk about my Hanify grandparents, there’s no good reason to leave out Grammy.
GRAMMY HANIFY, Montana 1918
Pretty, isn’t she? And tough as nails. She kept my Dad’s sisters working in the garden while my Dad herded cattle and horses. My grandfather went off when spring came to make money building road and trails. The wages he earned were thrown into a cookie jar, which only my grandmother had the authority to disburse. They lived through the winter off what was in the root cellar.
I miss my Grammy, I can tell you. Whenever I was in the mood for sport, I’d sneak within cane range, say something I thought was funny, then try to outrun the snap o’that whip. She had a fast draw! After she smacked you, she pulled you to her breast and cooed noni noni noni. We didn’t know what it meant. It didn’t matter.
HOW AMERICA WAS LOST
I got the idea to write this post from a friend of mine who was stationed in Germany when he was in the Army. He and his mates went out for a night with the local Germans, who strummed their guitars and sang the same songs their ancestors had sang for maybe hundreds of years. When it came time for the Americans to sing, no one knew any songs. Ever since I heard that story I’ve been thinking about the difference 50 years have made in my country. One lifetime, one epoch. How did that happen?
None of us postwar kids knew starvation. None of us got worked to the bone. We sat in front of the TV and expected to be entertained while we ate cereal and colored pictures. All of us expected to have a car, when it took my grandfather nearly a lifetime before he owned a paid-off car. In my lifetime, government was expected to eliminate poverty, win our overseas military engagements (once called ‘wars’), send us to college, and keep us all rollin’ in dough. If debt and inflation cautioned our appetites any, no one mentioned it. We just borrowed more and blamed the president when things didn’t go our way. The national debt was $250 Billion in 1945, and only increased to $320 Billion by 1965. In 2015 it was $19 Trillion. I’m pretty sure no one thinks we’re gonna pay that debt off, which means a collapse at some point is inevitable. That means we all get to learn the kinds of things my grandparents took for granted — knowledge that was mostly lost in a span of 50 years.
People in my folks’ time had to develop character. We have replaced character with caricature, mistaking a tattoo, for example, with an actual achievement. You can see it wherever you look. The movies that were produced and the books that were written in the 1930s and 1940s had more vitality, more flavor, more genuine humanity, A SOUL. I guess we’ll have to find out what it will take to replace our counterfeit America with the real deal. I’m worried the reclamation process will be very prolonged, and difficult.
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Bruce Hanify was born and raised on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.He was a deputy prosecuting attorney for 15 years and a criminal defense attorney for 15 years. He can be reached at BruceHanify@msn.com.
Bruce Hanify 2015 All Rights Reserved