Monday, May 25, 2009
MY PARENTS were part of Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation. The fall term of his senior year in college, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, my father tried to enlist in the Navy, but had some physical issue for which he was turned down. A few months later the world had changed and he left for the war during the middle of the semester. Harvard gave him and many others their degrees anyway.*
Dad was ready for war, but the Navy gave him a Sub Chaser and sent him to Miami. He was fired on once, by an American plane. He dropped depth charges once, but no sub surfaced. Meanwhile, my mother lived on Miami Beach, which must have had a long hot summer before there was much air conditioning. But obviously it was a much more comfortable life than most of their friends and contemporaries were having, even though it wasn't what my father had tried to volunteer for.
After a year or so, Dad was given command of a destroyer escort in the North Atlantic and told to report to his new Admiral in Boston. When he got there, he was told the Admiral's location was top secret and to report back the next day. After a few days of the same, a Chief Petty Office took pity on him and told him he might have better luck if he asked for the Admiral at the Philadelphia Naval Yard.
In Philadelphia he discovered that the Admiral's flagship was steaming up the Delaware to attend the Army-Navy football game. He also found out that the Navy had no more destroyer escort commands. That was probably lucky for the unborn me, because their duty was to escort the Merchant Marine across the North Atlantic, out on the flank, where they were frequently sunk in the freezing waters.
Instead, he was assigned to teach navigation at Notre Dame, which for the duration of the war was a naval college. My mother had cousins in South Bend, and they had a nice life, meeting people like Mrs. Studebaker, which probably made my father feel a little guilty. Like many of my contemporaries, I subsequently grew up with military references like "Don't act like a marine" – which means, "You're in the way" – and RHIP (Rank Has Its Privileges).
The schools where I've taught Classical Architecture and New Urbanism are Miami and the University of Notre Dame (the first two places to teach these). I was teaching at Miami when my mother died, and shortly afterwards I wrote a book review for the Wall Street Journal about a great Miami house. A professor at Miami lent me some vintage postcards with views of Vizcaya. One had been sent from Miami to Boston during the war. The card was unsigned, but I swear the handwriting was my mother's.
* Sixty years later, Tom Brokaw came and spoke at the Memorial Service for the Class. My father was dead by that time, but my mother and I were there. It reminded me of his 25th Reunion, when the Class was at a Boston Pops performance and the orchestra started playing The Stars and Stripes Forever. One of the wives grabbed a flag and started marching around Symphony Hall, to the cheers of everyone else. Soon there was a line of at least 200 marching around the hall.
Those were the parents of my friends. They were patriotic, hard-working, uncomplaining and honest.
My father, a Midwesterner, went on to practice corporate law in New York. At the end of his life in 1988, even though Lou Gehrig's Disease kept him out of the office, he made more money than he ever had before, because the nature of Wall Street was transformed by Michael Milken and Drexel Burnham. Suddenly, all the younger partners (my generation) thought they were supposed to be rich. Thirty years later we have the failure of Bear Stearns, the failure of mortgage-backed securities, and the biggest recession since the Depression in which my father grew up. He would be rather disgusted, I imagine.
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