January 19, 1999
For some reason, the 1940s seem to be a hot item right now. It's OK with me, because that time period, a half-century ago, is where my mind likes to wander around quite often. It has always been one of my favorites because I experienced so many things of great personal importance during that era. High school days, entering the full-time work force, beginning a life time occupation, military service in World War II, and other things of greater or lesser degree. These impacted my life and helped shape the glob that ultimately turned out to be me. It was, in many ways, a time of benchmarks. It does not seem like fifty years ago, but the calendar does not lie.
But I started this piece intending to write mainly about the spate of material concerning the 1940s that confronts us today, so let's get into that. A few months ago a major picture from Steven Spielberg, "Saving Private Ryan," was released to U.S. theaters and is still drawing rave reviews. It is a highly realistic recreation of the Allied landing on the coast of France on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and the fictional mission of an Infantry squad to locate an obscure Army private so that he could be returned safely to the U.S. after three of his brothers were killed. It is a grim and grisly account, but everyone should see it at least once to get an idea of what that war in Europe was really like.
Now another new movie, "The Thin Red Line," is in distribution and it purports to show us in Technicolor reality the jungle fighting that characterized the early bloody clashes between U.S. and Japanese troops in the South Pacific. The setting is the island of Guadalcanal. The name of that piece of real estate may not be familiar to many folks, but it is historic because that is where the American military machine began its struggle to defeat the imperial forces of Emperor Hirohito after the surprise Jap attack on Hawaii shortly before Christmas in 1941.
Another contribution to this renewed awareness of the 1940s is the Tom Brokaw book, The Greatest Generation, in which he describes the silent heroes and heroines of that generation. This is how he sees them: "They came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War and went on to build modern America-men and women whose everyday lives of duty, honor, achievement and courage gave us the world we have today." That's high praise from the NBC news anchor, and he illustrates it with a book filled with stories that tell about the quiet deeds of many individuals of that era. Most of them are names you've never heard, but you'll recognize several - Julia Child, Art Buchwald, George Bush, Andy Rooney, and a handful of others. The others made equally great contributions, but they were content to enjoy private lives thereafter.
And, for a little froth, the capper to all this is the popularity of swing dancing among today's young people. Not only do they enjoy the music of the 1940s, but they have brought forth a new generation of swing bands to accompany their fun on the dance floor. Surely you've heard of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. They're not Glenn Miller, not even Spike Jones, but they and their counterparts are playing the kind of music that today's young people demand. It's like deja vu all over again.