The We Generation

By , Jerry Cowle is a freelance writer from Pacific Palisades, Calif.

MY generation, born between 1915 and 1925, has taken considerable heat lately. According to critics, we're ``feeding at the Social Security and Medicare trough,'' and mortgaging their future. But we're puzzled. We thought we were paying premiums on a federal annuity policy all these years. Now we find that half our Social Security benefits are taxed if our income hits a certain level. Makes those of us who saved our money instead of splurging feel like suckers. Washington almost got away with that large Medicare surtax. Now it looks like Congress will raise Medicare premiums and cut benefits.

Consider our generation. Our formative years were scarred by the Great Depression. I can remember my mother weeping when the bank foreclosed on our home. I tried to help, but there were no after-school jobs to be found. When the druggist in my upstate New York village needed a delivery boy, 20 applicants stormed his pharmacy.

I tried selling door-to-door - copies of The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, and Country Gentleman, subscriptions to The American Boy, Christmas wreaths, you name it. But people had no money to buy. No fast-food outlets competed for our services. We had no discretionary income. How could a boy find work if his father couldn't?

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Today's video generation could never understand that a dollar bill was big and important then, and not to be spent casually.

College was almost unattainable. There were no Army programs to help pay tuition. Most of us couldn't afford a private university, and scholarships were scarce.

New York State had no free junior colleges or low-fee state universities. No politician proclaimed that it was the birthright of every youth to get a college education. In 1935, when I was ready for college, one could get a free education to become a teacher, farmer, veterinarian, ceramicist, or forester. I opted for forestry at Syracuse University.

About 70 of us graduated in June 1939, with bleak prospects. No corporations or headhunters stormed the campus to interview us. We crammed for the Civil Service examination for ``junior forester.'' The job paid $2,000 a year - big money then. But after passing the test, I found there were no openings.

It took the Great New England Hurricane of September 1938 to provide many of us with our first job. Half the forests in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts had blown over, and the federal government created the New England Forest Emergency.

We were paid $75 a month, with $26 deducted for a barracks bunk and three meals a day. That left us with $49. For that, we fought forest fires, cleared brush, worked our heads off, and felt very lucky.

We'd been working in New England for over a year when Hitler invaded Poland. Most of us joined, or were drafted into the armed services. I ended up as an officer on a landing craft, carrying infantrymen onto invasion beaches in Sicily, Salerno, and Utah Beach on D-Day.

Those of us who survived World War II shed our uniforms, pinned the ``ruptured duck'' veteran's insignia on our lapels, and started all over again.

Some of us started over in new careers, spotting the recent graduates half a dozen years. Yet we forged our futures, married, raised families, paid taxes, saved for homes, and drove used cars until we could afford new ones.

I was 42 years old before I became a homeowner. I bought my house with my own savings, not with money from my parents. If I hadn't had enough for the down payment, I would have waited.

So please excuse us if our hearts don't bleed over the youngsters who can't afford their first house or BMW before age 25. We were brought up to expect that there would be hard work and sacrifice involved in realizing our dreams. Unlike so many of today's college graduates, we never felt we were owed a diploma, a six-figure annual income, a showplace home, and a fancy car, all before age 35.

No one ever told us that we could ``have it all,'' as the television commercials now promise. So here we are in 1990: Depression kids, World War II veterans, patriotic citizens. Most of us have left our careers, some voluntarily, some having been nudged out the door. We never asked for a handout. But we believe that we're entitled to the Social Security and Medicare insurance we've paid for.

If today's generations have to make a sacrifice or two to fulfill promises made to us, so be it. Perhaps it might even build a bit of character, something that seems to be in short supply today.

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