The Greatest Generation’s Last Hurrah

Published in Pawtucket Times, November 15, 2014

The G.I. Generation, born between 1901 to 1924, (coined the “The Greatest Generation” by nationally acclaimed journalist Tom Brokaw), grew up in the Great Depression, and went on to fight World War II, considered to be the largest and deadliest global military conflict in the world’s history. The world-wide war directly involved more than 100 million people from over 30 countries.

With the enactment of a formal declarations of war in Dec. 1941, the ranks of the United States military, by draft and voluntary enlistment, ultimately swelled to
16 million soldiers. Ultimately, those serving in World War II came from every state, ethnic group and race, from poor and well-to-do families.

World War II veterans put their youth on hold to defend the country. Their ages ranged from ages 17 (with parental permission) to 37 years. When discharged a grateful country’s G.I. Bill Education benefits would send them to college, propelling them into professional careers, giving them a good income to raise a family and to economically spur the economy. .

Brokaw, a well-know American television journalist and author best known as the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, who now serves as a Special Correspondent for NBC News and works on documentaries for other news outlets, claims that this was “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” He asserted that these men and women fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was just the “right thing to do.”

The Last Man Standing

In their middle years, America’s “The Greatest Generation” would see the passing of the last Civil War veteran. On August 2, 1956, the 20th century veterans would learn about the death of Albert Henry Woolson, 106, the last surviving member of the Grand Army of the Republic, who fight in the nation’s bloody American Civil War. In 1864, Woolson had enlisted as a drummer boy in Company C 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment.

Woolson is considered to be the last surviving Civil War veteran on either side whose status is undisputed. At least three men who died after him claimed to be Confederate veterans but their veteran status has been questioned. .

According to the August 3, 1956 issue of the St. Petersburg Times, upon Woolson’s death, President Dwight D. Eisenhower stated: “The American people have lost the last personal link with the Union Army. His passing brings sorrow to the hearts of all of us who cherished the memory of the brave men on both sides of the War Between the States.”

In 2011, a World War I veteran was nationally recognition, like Civil War Veteran Woolson, for being the last American doughboy. Frank Buckles, 101, had the distinction of being the last survivor of 4.73 million Americans who fought in the “War to End All Wars.” The 16-year old enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917 and served with a detachment from Fort Riley, driving ambulances and motorcycles near the front lines in France. Buckles left military service with the rank of corporal.

In his final years, Buckles served as Honorary Chairman of the World War I Memorial Foundation. As chairman, he called for a World War I memorial similar to other war memorials inside the Washington, D.C. Beltway. He would campaign for the District of Columbia War Memorial to be renamed the National World War I Memorial.

Upon Buckles passing, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, issued a release, stating, We have lost a living link to an important era in our nation’s history,” whose distant generation was the first to witness the awful toll of modern, mechanized warfare. “But we have also lost a man of quiet dignity who dedicated his final years to ensuring the sacrifices of his fellow doughboys are appropriately commemorated,” adds Shinseki.

The Twilight Years of WWII Veterans

On November 11, there were fewer aging World War II veterans attending ceremonies held throughout the nation honoring them. With their medium age pegged at 92 years, many of these individuals are quickly becoming frail, their numbers dwindling as the years go by.

Over the next two decades, America’s World War II soldiers are dying quickly. We will again see another generation of soldiers passing, like Woolson or Buckles.

At the end of World War II, there were 16 million who served our nation in that horrific war. Thirty years ago, when President Ronald Reagan traveled to the battle site of Pointe du Hoc, located at a 100 ft cliff overlooking the English Channel on the coast of Normandy in northern France, there were only 10.7 million U.S. veterans left. The President came to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Normandy invasion, recognizing the American Ranger team that took heavy casualties in capturing the German-occupied cliff.

According to the U.S. Veteran’s Administration, in 2014, our frail World War II veterans are dying at a quick rate of just 555 a day. This means there are only 1.34 million veterans remaining. By 2036, The National World War II Museum predicts there will be no living veterans of this global war that took place from 1939 to 1945, to recount their own personal battle experiences. When this happens their stories, like Woolson and Buckles, will only be told in history books or by television documentaries or by historians and academics.

Last Tuesday, Veterans Day ceremonies and activities were held in 15 Rhode Island communities to honor those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Today, there are only 3,951 World War II veterans alive in the Ocean State. The elderly veteran’s numbers dwindle at these celebrations and even at their reunions because of their frailty and health issues.

We are posed to see a generation of veterans vanish right before our eyes. I say, cherish them while you can. Urge those around you who fought in World War II to tell stories and oral histories, for the sake of future generations. They have much to say, we have much to learn.

The National World War II Museum in Louisiana. To learn more about the Greatest Generation and the global war they fought in, go to http://www.nationalww2museum.org.

My commentary is dedicated to Second Lt. Frank M. Weiss, my father, who died in 2003 at 89 years old.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

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The Little Plaid Guide to Living a Better Life

Published in the Pawtucket Times, June 14, 2013

In just two days, millions of Americans will celebrate Father’s Day. As I penned this week’s commentary thinking of the approaching national holiday, I quickly began thinking of my Dad, who died of a heart attack over nine years ago at the ripe old age of 89. While he had recently been ailing and was well along in years, it was quite a shock to receive the long distance phone call from my sister that he had died.

For many, Father’s Day provides an opportunity to slow down and reflect on growing up with their father or step-father, fondly looking back to earlier times.

The Life and Times of Frank Weiss

There was one thing for sure that I know about my Dad, something I could literally take to the bank. Married for over 62 years, he passionately adored his wife, Sally, who he considered to be the most important person in his life. My twin brother, James, and two older sisters, Mickie and Nancy, and then ultimately his grandchildren, would also be very important to him throughout his long life, too.

As a youngster, I remember Dad’s work ethic, always working hard to support the family, oftentimes sitting, at the wrought iron and glass kitchen table, late into the evening hour working on his weekly reports. Although he worked long hours, Dad always found time to go to a ball game or just spend time with his kids.

Dad was like the Energizer rabbit – he kept working, working and working. There was no retirement for this man, who had worked for over 33 years at Colbert Volks, a well-known woman’s clothing store in Dallas, Texas. Two years after his bypass surgery, my 70-year old Dad wanted to chart a new career course, so he began a second job and worked at C’est Simone, a national manufacturer of women’s apparel, until the mid-80s. Amazingly, during his long career in woman’s retail, he could literally see a style or clothing trend well long before it happened, always predicting what new coat styles would sell in a particular season.

Looking Back Over the Years

I will always remember…

How we shot hoops in the backyard for ice cream. Dad always lost at the last moment– we always won, getting that double-dipped chocolate ice cream as a prize.

At restaurants, I remember Dad drinking cup after cup of black coffee at Luby’s Cafeteria, with the decaf coffee never being quite being hot enough for his taste.

In his later years, Dad would oftentimes reach out to strangers in very simple ways. He always carried that roll of Susan B. Anthony dollars, giving out the coins to the lucky ones who crossed his path. “Don’t spend them,” they’re lucky coins,” he would say. Just before his funeral we found his stash of coins, and everyone who attended the service got their “lucky coin.”

He was a practical joker, but at times a little too stubborn. As a very young child, sitting at a street curb he put his small leg in front of a truck, daring the vehicle to stop. This particular time the joke was on him – the truck moved, his leg didn’t, and bones in one leg were broken.

As a teenager, Dad would tip over outhouses throughout his neighborhood. He would assure me that nobody was in them. Always the practical joker, at his sister-in-law’s house in Pikesville, Maryland, Dad walked over to her neighbor’s house and with a straight face gave him advice on how to plant a tree. Heeding his authoritative advice, the neighbor kept digging the hole deeper, deeper, and deeper, until the ball of the tree was five feet from the top of the hole. Luckily, a local landscaper would come by and inform the gullible neighbor that the hole was too deep.

Throughout his long life, Dad cared about people. During his Army days, as an officer of the day, he ordered a cook to put cold cuts out for a group of soldiers who came by to eat after being out in the rain all day. The watery beef stew was not good enough for these guys, he would later tell me. While his superiors called him on the carpet for that act of kindness, he stood up to the military bureaucracy, demanding them to be accountable to their troops.

By tapping his business colleagues, Dad would successfully raise money for the AMC Cancer Society to help those battling this dreaded disease. Later, he would be recognized by the organization for his fund-raising efforts. I often think, perhaps that is where I get my skills in fundraising.

Life’s Little Lessons

I remember during the ups and downs in my brother and sisters personal and professional careers, Dad was always there giving us practical advice, encouragement, and support, often times through little gifts.

Last week, going through a cluttered desk drawer I found a small book given to me by Dad almost 15 years ago. The inspirational book, Life’s Little Instruction Book, penned by author, H. J. Brown, Jr., from Middle Tennessee, gave simple words of wisdom gleaned from his life experience, as well as others.

This small tome caught the attention of my Dad along with the American public, becoming the first book to ever occupy the number one spot on the New York Times best-seller list in both paperback and hard cover formats simultaneously. It has logged more than two years on this prestigious daily newspaper’s best-seller list, including more than a year at the number one spot. The little plaid book was written as a going-away present for Brown’s college-bound son, containing 511 simple suggestions, observations, and reminders on how to live a happy and rewarding life.

So as Father’s Day approaches, memories of my Dad come to me again, giving me his sage advice on how to have a fulfilling personal and professional life. All I have to do is go through the pages of this long lost book he gave me and read the following suggestions, observations and reminders, he marked, with a blue dot, the ones he liked the best.

Here is a sampling:

“When someone wants to hire you even if it’s a job you have little interest in, talk to them. Never close the door on an opportunity until you’ve had a chance to hear the offer in person.”

“Never deprive someone of hope because it might be all they have.”

“When starting out, don’t worry about not having enough money. Limited funds are a blessing and not a curse. Nothing encourages creative thinking in quite the same way.”

“Give yourself an hour to cool off before responding to someone who has provoked you. If it involves something really important, give yourself overnight.”

“Don’t waste time responding to your critics.”

“Never give up on what you really want to do. The person with the big dreams is more powerful than one with all the facts.”

“Give people a second change, but not a third.”

“Read carefully anything that requires your signature. Remember the big print giveth and the small print taketh away.”

“Don’t forget that a person’s greatest emotional need is to feel appreciated.”

“Don’t burn bridges. You’ll be surprised how many times you have to cross the same river.”

“Judge your success by the degree that you are enjoying peace, health, and love.”

“Seek opportunity, not security. A boat in a harbor is safe, but in time its bottom will rot out.”

“Just to see how it feels, for the next twenty-four hours refrain from criticizing anyone or anything.”

“Don’t be rushed into making an important decision. People will understand if you say, ‘I’d like a little more time to think it over. Can I get back to you tomorrow?”

“Send your loved one flowers. Think of a reason later.”

“Be prepared. You never get a second change to make a good first impression.”

“Select a doctor your own age so you can grow old together.”

“Get your priorities straight. No one ever said on his death bed, “Gee, if I’d only spent more time at the office.”

“Don’t flaunt your success, but don’t apologize for it either.”

“Be bold and courageous. When you look back on your life, you’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than the ones you did.”

Most importantly, “Never waste an opportunity to tell someone you love them.”

Brown’s book reminds us the importance of taking simple actions that can lead to a more fulfilling life. It’s a great gift for parent’s to give to their children. To purchase Life’s Little Instruction Book, go to http://www.amazon.com/Lifes-Little-Instruction-Book-Observations/dp/B002MAQSIO/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1370916533&sr=8-5&keywords=H.+Jackson+Brown.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

An Aging Baby Boomer’s Reflections on Losing a Parent

             Published on December 29, 2003, Pawtucket Times

              Last week, Frank M. Weiss, my 89-year-old father, died. While he had been ailing and was well along in years, it was quite a shock to receive the phone call from my sister Mickie that he had died.

               The death of a parent can be considered a major milestone in an aging baby boomer’s life.  In her 264-page book published by Cambridge University Press. Debra Umberson, author of “Death of a Parent: Transition to a New Adult Identity,” says “the death of a parent launches a period of self-realization and the transformations of the adult identity.”

              Umberson, a professor and chair of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, states a parent’s death is “the turning point in one’s emotional and social lives of adults and can bring changes in how a person views themselves and their relationship with the outside world.”

             A parent’s death creates an “opening that pushes them into the final transition into adulthood, Umberson says.

           Dad’s death did create for me an opportunity for reflection on his life.

            My dad loved his wife, Sally, very much.  Married for more than 62 years, she was the most important person in his life.

            His four children were also very important to him, too.

           Over the years, I remember Dad always telling me on our weekly phone calls how proud he was of Mickie, Nancy, Jim and me.  He also loved his five grandchildren, Leslie, Jennifer, Kim, Stephanie and Jamie, and his three great-grandchildren, Jacquelyn, Allison and Haleigh.

           Dad warmly accepted Justin, Deb and Patty, his children’s son and daughters-in-laws into the Weiss family.

           As a youngster, I remember Dad working hard to support the family.  Although he worked long hours, he would always find time to go to a ball game or just spend time with his kids.

           Fast forward to the adult years.  When my siblings became adults, he would continue to be our biggest fan.

          Even during the ups and downs in our personal and professional careers, Dad was alway there giving us advice, encouragement, support and oftentimes, financial backing.

          Coming from a Jewish heritage, we always joked about how appropriate it was for Dad to be in the “Schmata” business, otherwise known as the clothing business.  He worked for more than 30 years at Colbert Volks, a well-known woman’s clothing store in Dallas, Texas.  He could see a style or trend before it happened, aways predicting what new coat styles would sell in a particular season.

         How ironic, I thought when Mickie informed me that he suddenly died at Colbert Volks, shopping for a present to give to my mother.

          Dad was like the Energizer rabbit – he kept working, working and working. No retirement for this man.  Two years after his bypass surgery, my 70-year old Dad wanted to chart a new course in his career.  he began a second job and worked at C”est Simone, a national manufacturer of women’s appear, until the mid-70s.

         I will always remember:

         Stories of Dad’s childhood. He was a great football player and a Gold Gloves boxer, I was told.

          Shooting hoops in the backyard for ice cream.  He always lost– we always won, getting that double-dipped chocolate ice cream as a prize.

          At restaurants, I remember Dad drinking cup after cup of black coffee, with the decaf coffee never being quite hot enough for  his tastes.

         Dad would touch people in simple ways. He had a roll of Susan B. Anthony dollars, giving out the coins to anyone who crossed his path. “Don’t spend them ,” they’re lucky coins,” he would say.

        My dad was very honest.  Once a coat manufacturer sent him a box containing money hoping to entice  him to purchase  coats from the company. Dad never accepted that money.

         He was a practical joker. I remember being told a story about the day he sat as a very young child, at a street curb and put his leg in front of a truck, daring the vehicle to go.  This particular time the joke was on him – the truck moved, his leg didn’t, and bones in one leg were broken.

       As a teenager, Dad would tip over outhouses throughout his neighborhood.  He would  assure me that nobody was in them.

         Years later, at this sister-in-law’s house in Pikesville, Maryland, Dad walked over to her neighbor’s house and gave his advice on how to plant a tree.  Heeding his advice, the neighbor dug the hole deeper, deeper, and deeper, until the ball of the tree was five feet from the top of the hole. Later a local landscaper would come by and inform the tree planter that the hole was too deep.

        Throughout his long life, Dad cared about people.

       During his Army days, as an officer of the day, he ordered a cook to put cold cuts out for a group of soldiers who came by to eat after being out in the rain all day.  The watery beef stew was not good enough for these guys, he would later tell me.  While his superiors called him on the carpet for that act of kindness, he stood up to the military bureaucracy, demanding them to be accountable to their troops.

        By tapping his business colleagues, Dad would successfully raise money for the AMC Cancer Society to help those battling that dreaded disease.

        Later, he would be recognized by the organization for his fund-raising efforts. For those who know me, perhaps that is where I get my skills in fundraising.

         In thinking back, I thought dad seemed to know that death was near.  A week before he died, in my last phone conversation with him, I sensed he knew he was ready to go.

        Dad had made peace with is life experiences, the good and the bad, telling me that “he had lived a good, prosperous life, had a beautiful wife and was very proud of each child and their accomplishments in their lives.”

        Due to my mother’s Alzheimer’s and his failing health, years ago he was forced to sell and move away from the house he had lived in for more than 50 years, the family  homestead and a place with  happy memories from him.

       In his final days, Dad  was in constant pain and had great difficulty walking. Dad went the way most of us would want to go on December 18, 2003 –very fast and in no pain.

       Over the coming weeks, I am sure that I will continue to process my Dad’s sudden death, a major  milestone in my life.

       I am reminded of this phrase from the movie “Summer of 42”: “Life is made up of small comings and goings – and for everything we take with us – we leave a part of ourselves behind.”

       So true. While Dad’s love may well propel me into adulthood. I can assure you that my memories of him won’t be left behind.

        Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.