“There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation has a rendezvous with destiny.” So spoke President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on June 27, 1936, when he accepted the Democratic nomination for a second term as president.
The Greatest Generation is now gone in Gary’s family. Last Friday Gary and I attended the memorial service for his father Paul’s sister, Jean Raley. Jean was born in 1922 and was ninety-three years old when she died. The month before, Gary’s mother, our beloved Gerry (Alma Geraldine), died at age ninety-six, having been born in 1919.
We often think of World War II veterans in conjunction with the Greatest Generation, which includes those born between 1914 and 1929. According to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, a WWII veteran dies approximately every three minutes and at the rate of 430 a day (U.S. Veterans Administration figures). Most veterans are now in their 90s. Out of sixteen million Americans who served their country in World War II, less than a million are alive, and by 2036 there will likely be no veterans left.
Gary’s parents, Gerry and Paul, were both WWII veterans, and so was Jean’s husband, Porter. Gary’s mother was one of the first women to ever serve in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, enlisting in Nov. 1942. In September 1943 she became a 1st Lieutenant in the WAC, the Women’s Army Corp. She met Captain Paul Haller while he was serving in the Army Air Corp.
Meanwhile, Jean and Porter were married on February 8, 1942 and said goodbye on Easter Sunday, April 7. They did not see each other again for over three years, until the end of July, 1945. Porter was in the Army and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
The grit, determination and spirit of the Greatest Generation were not found just in those who enlisted in the armed forces. We also saw it in those who stayed behind to take care of children, support the war effort and keep the home fires burning.
The Greatest Generation took responsibility. They did not whine or shirk their duty, whether at home or abroad. They faced challenges head-on and got the job done. Gerry, Paul and Porter all enlisted in the armed forces, although Gerry’s mother had to sign a waiver in order for her to serve (too short, too skinny, only one lung fully functioning).
The Greatest Generation was frugal. They did not take anything for granted and appreciated what they had. They learned how to find happiness in whatever they did and focused on excellence and determination. They did not need big fancy cars or homes. One of the mottos of the Greatest Generation was “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”
The Greatest Generation was humble. Most returning soldiers did not readily share war stories, not only because it was painful to remember but because they believed they were simply doing their duty. It was only in recent years that I heard about Gerry’s amazing experiences in the bunkers below Washington D.C., as the brightest and best of the women trailblazers in the armed forces were trained to take over the anti-aircraft defense of Washington D.C.
The Greatest Generation loved loyally. This was the last generation where divorce was uncommon. People made commitments to marriage, family, friends, God and country and stuck with it. Christianity boomed after World War II when young families with children embraced faith and flocked to churches. Gary’s parents and his aunt Jean and uncle Porter were very active at First United Methodist Church in Battle Creek, Michigan. In fact, Paul and Jean were born into this congregation, with Jean joining the church at age six and remaining at the heart of the congregation her entire life.
The Greatest Generation embraced challenge and was willing to sacrifice. This generation was not great despite the immense challenge of the Depression and World War II but precisely because of those challenges. In the crucible of deprivation and war, they chose to live with integrity and with their whole heart. Why? For the sake of their families, their country, the world and, most of all, their God.
In his sermon at Jean’s memorial service, Pastor Doug Vernon emphasized that Jean Raley’s life was one of love. She loved long, well and deep. In fact, as 1 Corinthians 13 reminds us, love never ends for those who seek to follow Christ. Jean’s home was always welcoming and comfortable. Most of all, it was a place where love never ended. That love continues in her family and her church.
Would that my Baby Boomer Generation might embody the grace and resolve that made our parents great and pass those characteristics on to Generation X, the Millennials and Generation Z. I have no doubt that Gary’s character was formed through the close bonds he and his family had with Jean and Porter’s family as well as the church. Gerry and Jean were like sisters.
As I sat in the sanctuary of First UMC, Battle Creek, for Jean’s service, I couldn’t help but recall the last chance that our children and grandchildren had to be with Gary’s mother a week before she died on December 4.
Nov. 23: Gerry had a bad reaction to a new medication, which caused her to spill a glass of water over herself in the middle of the night. “How dumb can you get?” she admitted.
Nov. 24: A wheelchair was delivered to Gerry’s assisted living room because congestive heart failure limited her ability to walk. “I don’t want a wheelchair, I want a scooter!” she said, desiring to be like her 101-year-old friend down the hall.
Gerry told us how she almost died after her second child, David, was born. “I was in my hospital room, and I started hemorrhaging. There was nothing I could do. The woman who had been my roommate was taking her baby out to her car with her husband when she said to him, ‘I didn’t say goodbye to Gerry. I need to go back up and say goodbye.’ When she got into the room, she saw blood everywhere and called for help. I had an out-of-body experience where I could see from above how the doctors and nurses were desperately trying to stop the bleeding. If my roommate hadn’t returned to the room, I would have died. She saved my life.”
Nov. 25: “I don’t feel good. I want to be well,” Gerry said. I had never heard Gerry complain about her health in the thirty-eight years I knew her. This, from a person who spent a year bedridden on her back as a teenager because a lung had filled up with an infection.
Nov. 26: Gerry was able to get to our daughter’s house for Thanksgiving, where she nibbled at her food but ate a big piece of pecan pie. She said to granddaughter Sarah, “Your babies are so cute. Don’t tell (7-year old) Ezra I called him a baby. The little baby River is so smart and adorable. I’m still getting used to his name.”
Nov. 27 (the day we all left for home): Gerry to Gary, who was caring for her, “Don’t flirt with me or I’ll jump into your lap.”
Gerry told us that when she was stationed at Boeing Field in Seattle in 1942 with the job of setting up a budget, she crawled through the very first B-29 that was ever built.
One by one we all said goodbye, knowing we would not see her again. The love was overwhelming. Then we held hands and prayed. In the middle of the prayer, Gerry said, “And I’ll get to see Pop.” (her husband, Paul, who is in heaven).
It’s possible for every generation, including yours and mine, to become the greatest generation when we let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, love one another with mutual affection and outdo one another in showing honor. It’s possible for every generation to live peaceably with all if we place our trust in the God who promises to bear us up on eagles’ wings, no matter what happens. And it’s possible for every generation to have a rendezvous with destiny and change our world for good when we take up our cross daily and follow Jesus.
Gerry and Jean: the Greatest Generation once again leaves its mark on future generations because their love never ends.