I AM A SELF-APPOINTED HISTORIAN of those of my generation who are still living. Who are we? We are not easily discernible among the more than 300 million persons who live in the United States. We were born between 1908 and 1918, which makes us the oldest of the old, perhaps, even, the long-lost generation.
There are more of us still alive than anyone expected. We constitute a small tribe of one and a half million persons. The Census Bureau predicts that this number is growing rapidly. In one Quaker community of 430 persons, 82 are over 90. But our views, habits, opinions, and characteristics are not often recorded, unless they are satirized or made the butt of cruel and, to some Of us, humorless jokes.
There exists a vast literature about babies, children, teenagers, young adults, the middle-aged, the baby boomers, and the recently retired, aimed at helping the world to understand and sympathize with them. Very little that is trustworthy has been written about us.
My disadvantage as a historian is that, for the most part, I lack objectivity. For my information I must be self-reliant. My sole qualifications are that I am the right age--past 90--and I believe (it may be erroneously) that I know something about myself and a little about my peers. My model for this assumption is the novelist E. M. Forster, who said that he constructed his characters out of what he knew about himself and what he guessed about others. What I know about myself comes from the limited memory of a New York City girl. What I presume to guess about others must come from what I have read about and been told.
If I were to speak in architectural terms, I would say that we are the country's ruins. So, my description of us and our time will not make entirely cheerful reading. Despite long and careful research I have not been able to discover dependable evidence for what literature often calls the golden years. I have seldom heard the phrase used by my contemporaries. More often it is spoken by younger people who are approaching their retirement. The actual proof for this euphemism is lacking.
THE YEARS BETWEEN THE TWO WARS, for my generation, were, to the pictures that remain in my mind, a rapid succession of dire events: the long, deep Depression showing men on soup-kitchen lines and the unemployed on street corners selling apples for five cents apiece. Hobos, as they were called, living in jungles of shacks and lean-tos under the bridges and in barren stretches of riverbanks.
We heard about world news on the radio and in newsreels, but it was all unreal and far away from us. But much closer to home and more immediate, the children and teenagers of those wretched years, especially those like me who lived in crowded cities, were subject to a widespread and deadly disease, infantile paralysis, called, in the worried conversations of their elders, polio.
My parents decided to send my sister and me to a Catskill Mountain camp to escape the risk of infection. They were not allowed to visit during the two months' period for fear of bringing the disease into the camp from the city. But, curiously enough, it was already there. One of my bunkmates, a twin named Rita, was sent home with weakness and a high fever and, I learned later, died almost before she could be treated.
I was spared the disease, but not the sight. The winter after camp I developed rheumatic fever, another common affliction of the time. I was taken for the month of February to Atlantic City; it was believed that the strong sea breeze would cure my fevers, swollen glands, and general debility.
One cold, windy day my mother took me for a walk up the boardwalk. I remember how my mother's face was almost covered by her veil and her hands and mine were kept warm by fur muffs. We came to a large, high clapboard house close to the ocean. My mother said it was the Children's Home for the treatment of polio.
In the lee of one of the houses' wings I saw a torpedo-shaped metal structure on wheels. Out of one end was a child's head, wrapped in a woolen cap. I gripped my mother's hand, I remember, and asked what that was. She told me it was where they put children with severe polio. "It's called an iron lung" she said. "It breathes for them" For a long time, until I heard that Jonas Salk had devised a vaccine, I had nightmares about being wrapped in metal like the child in Atlantic City, unable to move or escape. I did not feel sick, but I was nonetheless a prisoner of graphic fear.
When we were children there was another dreaded affliction. We often saw classmates with huge bandages behind their ears and were told they had had an operation for "mastoid," as they called it. Later there would be an ugly scar behind their ears. My friend Dolly, the daughter of the superintendent of our apartment house, and I used to put our hands behind our ears when we went to Central Park, for fear of catching the mastoids.
We never did.
THE IMAGES THAT REMAIN IN MY MIND from my college years are these: in 1936 many students stood on the steps of Main Building at New York University in Washington Square and took the Oxford Pledge: we would not to go to war under any condition.
The Square was the college's campus. In my senior year I remember sitting on a bench at the southern end, near tables of old men playing chess and checkers, and studying for finals. A madam (as I soon learned she was) from a house on a nearby street, sat down beside me and turned her handsome, highly made-up face to the sun. After a while she looked down at my book and asked me what I intended to do after I graduated. I said I was going to graduate school if I was fortunate enough to get a fellowship.
"And after that, what will you do?"
I said I had no idea. Then she told me about the advantages of pursuing her profession, the high compensation it provided, free housing food, and drink, even medical care, in return for work "only at night" and in very comfortable surroundings in her MacDougall Street house--"my home," she called it.
I listened, fascinated by the details of her offer. She asked if I would like to see the house. Regretfully, I said no, I had a final exam that afternoon and needed to study before I took it. Several years later, when I had been fired from two jobs and was unemployed, I wondered if I should have taken her up on her offer.
Two years after we had sworn that solemn oath, war broke out in Europe and the president promised aid, under a lend-lease arrangement, to England. A draft was established for men over 18 to join the Army. Suddenly the boys, now men, of my generation were called up, by number, and went off to camps to be trained for what was...