We laid a WWII veteran to rest last Wednesday. John Pevarnik, age 92, and a survivor of the Pacific theatre which cost him his right arm, died last week at his nursing home. The services were set up hurriedly so as to avoid conflicting with Holy Week.
I knew John for nearly 30 years, after I married his niece. He was a true crusty curmudgeon of a farmer. To him, the US was always on the verge of the return of the great depression. Since he came of age during the decade of the 1930’s, that period formed the basis for his world view. He enjoyed holding court in the shop of the farm, conducting verbal sparring matches with whoever came by. I seemed to have some credibility with him through my work in agricultural chemicals, since I could talk intelligently about farming issues, and the fact that I worked for a multi-national corporation meant that I was worth something. I always enjoyed talking to him, and seeing him tease our children was fun to watch, since he never became mean to them.
He lost his right arm in Saipan in WWII. When I first met him, it was over 40 years since that defining event in his life had occurred. He was still able then to drive the tractors, and drive the new pick-ups that he bought as probably his only extravagance. Working as a dairy farmer for so long, he internalized the schedule of twice-daily milkings as his own lifestyle. I saw him and his brother slowly wind down their farming career, first moving from dairy to beef cattle, then forgoing the cattle for forage crops, and now finally the only crop on the farm that they produced is the natural gas from the first generation of Marcellus shale wells. A grand-nephew keeps up with some hay and beef cattle on one section of the farm, and the other land is rented now.
John had so much in common with my uncles, Bill and Charles. Their experiences were on the other side of the globe, in North Africa, and marching across Europe during the end of 1944 into 1945. My uncle Charles survived a Malmedy-like experience, having had to play dead in order to avoid being shot by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. My uncle Bill came into France on one of the gliders supporting D-Day. Now, my only memento of their service is the compass that my uncle Bill got from a German. I found that while we were cleaning up his house after his death in 1992. Both of my uncles died that year, only about a week apart. It was not a good time for my mother, losing her only siblings so close together.
My wife and I were of the generation just after WWII. It was not our parents who served, it was the older brothers of our parents. The background of the war was imprinted upon us, but not as directly as if our fathers had been in uniform and served in battle. Still, in my family, there were topics that were viewed as forbidden. As an example, we never watched Hogan’s Heroes growing up, because of my parent’s firm belief that POW camps were not a proper vehicle for comedy. POW camps and concentration camps were too close to their memory to ever consider them as a source of humor.
Now the war fades further into memory. All survivors of WWII service are at least 90, and you see fewer and fewer obituaries of service members as their numbers dwindle. When my uncles died, it was at the beginning of the dying of their generation, in their late ’60’s and early ’70’s. Now, 25 years later, it is the tail end of the Greatest Generation that is leaving this life.
When they returned to the US, it was their numbers and their energy that unleashed the tremendous post-war economic boom in the US. During the 1930’s, the growth from new family formation was held back due to the prolonged economic hardships felt by so many. Then the war came, and demographics were put on pause as so many men and women were uprooted from their lives in order to serve and fight and manufacture. When the floodgates were opened in the late 1940’s, the Greatest Generation gave their second major contribution to the US. They lived. They worked. They learned in college. And they gave birth to the greatest number of children that this country ever had. The echoes of the baby boomers continues to be heard today as birth rates swell and fade.
It was this demographic tidal wave that was unleashed after WWII that led to the growth rates now viewed as the time when America was great. It is disheartening to see a simplistic plea to recover a memory of the past becoming the rallying cry of a political movement. But unfortunately, simplistic pleas are what resonate with enough of the populace to allow for the electoral triumph we saw in 2016.
I wish to honor the memory of the uncles, and of all who fought in and served in our nations wars. I wish that our nation would begin to understand that it is not always necessary to engage militarily in order to accomplish our goals as a nation. I wish that we as citizens of the globe as well as citizens of a nation would realize that progress is not a zero-sum game – someone else’s gain is not necessarily our loss. I will do that as best as I can with the voice that I have. This coming weekend, with the marches for science taking place across the country, I will be participating and lending my voice to those who realize that it is only through increasing knowledge and education that we will truly be able to honor those who served before us, and make this country great once more.