Baby Boomers: World War II Ended Seventy one Years Ago Today
In honor of John Lennon who sang, “Imagine all the people living life in peace.”
Published in ChicagoNow, September 2, 2016
Today marks the seventy-first anniversary of the official end of World War II. On September 2, 1945, Japan formally surrendered aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay. Five days later, I arrived. What follows is an excerpt from my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real about why I chose to identify with the post-war baby boomers…
My birthdate places me in no-man’s-land as far as generations go, just three months short of being an official boomer. In fact, my mother always claimed I had shared in the Detroit VJ Day (Victory over Japan) celebration on August 15, 1945. In her version, I traveled downtown in her womb and listened with her to the bell of the University of Detroit clock tower tolling 137 times to celebrate the end of the war and honor each of its students lost in combat.
When I discovered that technically, because the baby boomers started in 1946 with the return of soldiers from the war, I didn’t quite belong, I felt cheated. Growing up in a sheltered, predominately Jewish, middle-class suburb, I was a kind of generational nomad. I never identified with the values of what Time magazine dubbed the Silent Generation. SGers were supposedly unimaginative, unadventurous, very ambitious, competitive, power-hungry, and status seeking. No way did that describe me. Many of the pop culture phenomena that interested my high school peers just didn’t grab me. I hated Elvis but loved going to the Motown Review. I didn’t like Ike or Ed Sullivan or Gunsmoke or American Bandstand. President Kennedy was my political hero. Like my parents, I wanted to belong to an important generation that reflected my values. As I saw it, I was either at the very end of one generation or on the cusp of another, and the choice was mine to make.
In the fall of 1963 when I entered the University of Michigan, I crossed into the baby boomer community in spirit if not in birth year. The first time I heard the Beatles songs “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” at a freshman mixer, I was there. I traded my girdle and matching sweater sets for jeans, peasant blouses, and tie-dyed shirts. I grew my hair long and wore it straight. No more sleeping in curlers for me. I had found my people. For the first time in my life, I felt I belonged.
After I graduated, I moved away from home and married an authentic boomer, one who was born in 1946. Like most members of our generation, we had little money and few possessions, but we saw this as the natural order of things. I taught high school English, earning six thousand dollars a year, while my husband earned negative money attending medical school. Yet I saw nothing wrong with spending every penny we had saved from our wedding to go to Europe in the summer of 1969 on the five-dollar-a-day plan. I supported Gene McCarthy and cried in anger and disbelief when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. I hated Lyndon Johnson (in retrospect a bit unfair) and Richard Nixon (still think that hatred was well deserved). I cheered when Nixon left office in disgrace. Like many boomers, my politics were most deeply marked by the living through the assassination of President Kennedy. I became a political cynic, and while I lean left, to this day I remain skeptical of all politicians and their promises.
My cynicism caused me to embrace a multitude of causes. Among slogans I actually uttered, along with my tribe, were:
1. Never trust anyone over thirty
2. Make love, not war
3. Give peace a chance
4. Do your own thing
5. War is not healthy for children and other living things
6. Tell it like it is
7. Women belong in the house…and the Senate
8. Question authority
9. Power to the people
10. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem
When I said any of these things, a friend would inevitably reply, “Right on.” That’s when I felt the power of being part of something larger than myself. My kids may think it’s strange that I am moved to sing along to “Good Morning Starshine” from Hair. They don’t get why I feel compelled to dance to Beatles and Motown music at weddings. They don’t have a clue why Woodstock was such a big deal. But my fellow boomers understand. That was our time. It was our identity. As we age into senior citizens on Medicare, we still treasure the politics, values, and culture that informed our youth. For me, they include rejecting ideas coming from higher authorities and believing in Margaret Mead’s famous quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Reviewing my top ten slogans list, aside from #1, it’s still a pretty good one. So, sock it to me, right on, groovy, go with the flow, far out, heavy… I choose to be a boomer. Consider this my stake in the ground, my claim to the generation in which I truly belong.