Youthful behavior

By Tom Putnam | Sep 17, 2010

From the vantage point of growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, I have a perfect right to critique those in their teens and 20s today, correct? Well, I guess that depends upon when you, the reader was born. Some may agree with me but many others will not. Let's get into some of our idiosyncrasies and compare notes.

The 1930s and 1940s were affected by two principle events: the Great Depression and World War II. Both produced a humility and also a fierce pride: humility for oneself and pride for what the United States was accomplishing. Of course, most of those feelings were engendered by our parents.

My parents were from California. My Grandmother Putnam told me, later in her life, that California was great until all those easterners began to move there. She had grown up on a ranch near Petaluma that was adjacent to the ranch that Jack London had grown up on. My dad's father died when Dad was 12 and Grandmother Putnam raised her three boys by herself. She was the principal of a grade school.

My mother's father had moved from Colorado to Sacramento with Mother. He had lost his wife and several sons to infectious diseases and then decided to move west. He became a rancher and remarried and had four daughters and a son. (Interestingly, his son, my Uncle Clark, was six months younger than I. Clark hated it when I called him Uncle Clark in front of his friends, and I knew it!). My parents grew up in the 1910s and 1920s and had a stressful but stimulating life. Both met on the Berkeley campus of the University of California and married in 1928. After my sister and I were born, Dad had many moves across country. He worked for Chevrolet; and we finally wound up in Cincinnati, Ohio. Cincinnati is a beautiful city on the Ohio River: the "City of Seven Hills," or the "Rome of the West." At that time, the population was principally of German heritage, having originally immigrated to Pennsylvania and then migrating down the Ohio River.

We were essentially an all-white population and mostly Christian. We were taught frugality, the Golden Rule, and "try to do the best that you can." I can remember my mother telling me once, when I brought home a rather mediocre report card, which I knew she would not like: "If this is the best you can do, Tommy, this is alright; but make sure that you feel down deep inside that this was the best you could do." That was a lesson that I never forgot. In other words, be true to yourself. We also were taught frugality. There was a severe Depression going on. Frugality to a young child growing up was just the way it was.

Our culture was different from today's. We were not exposed to drugs. Skin tattoos were seen only on WW I veterans, usually sailors. We were introduced to smoking in high school. The ill effects on health were not understood and women smoked, too. But a lady never smoked on the street. Boys were taught to open doors for women as a mark of courtesy and men walked on the outside to protect the women from what might be in the street or coming up out of it.

Then along came WW II. We were blessed in this country by never having our mainland attacked. That came later in the first part of the 21st Century on 9/11. Our young men went off to war in Europe and in the Pacific. Our young women worked in the war factories. Anyone remember "Rosie the Riveter?" Remember the posters with Uncle Sam pointing a finger at the viewer and the statement: "Uncle Sam wants YOU"; or "Buy US War Bonds"?

The Big Band era was in full swing and that was what it was called: Swing! Bands consisted of 15 to 20 instruments. Most were brass and woodwinds for melody and harmonies. Occasionally strings were added if the music were really smooth. Piano, drum and bass were for rhythm. Vocalists and trio/quartets had intricate and smooth arrangements. There was no shouting and banjos and guitars were considered "hillbilly." Lyrics were cute: "Three Little Fishes"; or filled with love: "Stardust", "Moonlight Serenade" and "Serenade in Blue." This carried the country and its fighting men through WW II.

This all began to change as the decade of the 1950s began to wane. Then rock began to emerge. A new generation had been born, the Baby Boomers. Popular music did a one-eighty. No more smooth harmonies; in was beat with lots of guitars. My music was gone. Likely the Boomers felt that Swing sounded like the music of the 1920s did to my young ears in the 1930s and 1940s. But by that time, I was in my 30s and 40s: more into the practice of medicine and helping my wife raise our two wonderful children.

Then along came "Generation X." To my 1940s ear, rock remains the principal sound of popular music. I miss the old close harmonies and intricate orchestrations. Today, as I watch the young walking down the street or in stores, or sitting and chatting, I am overwhelmed by the tattoos. I remember asking my grandsons when they were quite young, "Are you ready to take the oath?"

"What's an oath, Grampa?"

"It's a promise that you will keep forever."

"Sure, Grampa: we will take the oath."

"OK. But remember, this is serious. You must swear that you will not do drugs, you will not smoke, you will not get a tattoo, and there will be no body piercings."

"But the girls have pierced ears."

"Yes, but they are girls."

"Sure, Grampa: we'll take the oath."

And they did. Each time I saw them, I would ask, "do you remember the oath?" They would recite it verbatim.

They are now in their early 20s and so far have obeyed their oath. They joke about it today, but so far it seems to have lasted. In their world, they will be in the definite minority. Both men and women sport tattoos and not just modest ones. Many have huge decorations looking like oriental lamp shades. Most of the youth seem to smoke. Perhaps we should encourage that behavior so that life spans will be shortened and universal health care will be less expensive.

But looking ahead, the next generation will change again. Will it return to the values of my generation? Much will depend upon where the U.S. is in the world. We believed that globalization would encourage a closer relationship between the people of the world. But the human ego and psyche has intervened and there are areas of tension and conflict in the Middle East and Central Asia, and in the Far East. In today's world and the future, the generation of the 1930s and 1940s will seem like the late 1800s did to me in my youth, the era when my grandparents were young. Today's kids will some day look back on their era with nostalgia as they grow older in a new and previously unknown behavioral culture. Will they be proud of their habits, their appearance and their culture?

I hope so.


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