In the top right drawer of my parents' desk when I was growing up, a small booklet with a tan cover told a story of sacrifice.
It was a ration book, left over from World War II. Inside, blue coupons entitled a bearer to buy foods that were then in short supply: sugar, butter, coffee.
My parents never talked about the sacrifices they - and everyone else - had made during the war. Only when I asked questions about the old ration book, which was one of a series issued between 1942 and 1945, did they offer details about other items that had been rationed, including gasoline and tires. Women even saved kitchen grease, which contained glycerin that could be used in a variety of products.
Talk about recycling!
To a child growing up in a postwar period of sufficiency, that little ration book and the sacrifices it represented made a lasting impression. Sparsely stocked grocery shelves? Meatless meals? Limits on gas at the pumps? It was all hard to imagine.
As another reminder of wartime economics, a black-and-white photo in a family album shows my mother in a local victory garden, where she and my father grew tomatoes and vegetables in a tiny plot.
For members of current generations whose wallets bulge with plastic, the wartime practice of going without or making do is foreign. During the mostly prosperous decades since the second world war, the word "sacrifice" has grown rusty from lack of use. Now, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and the military buildup in Afghanistan, the word is being dusted off and polished, ready for widespread use again.
President Bush is already cautioning Americans to prepare for "moments of sacrifice." Even former Sen. Bob Dole warned last week that "sacrifice may be our lot for years to come."
The specifics remain vague. No one is talking yet about just what those sacrifices might include. At times, in fact, somber comments like these conflict with more upbeat messages from Washington, urging Americans to go out and live normal lives.
Yet something in the mood of the times is responding to that word, "sacrifice.." The me-first greed and excess of the 1990s may have run their course. A new question floating through the autumn air is: What can I do to help? An attitude of entitlement is giving way in some quarters to a growing sense of compassion.
For workers affected by corporate layoffs, including 415,000 who lost their jobs in October, belt-tightening has already begun. Some employees in the hard-hit travel industry are making do with pay cuts and reduced workweeks. Military families face separation and hardship.
Even schoolchildren are learning small lessons in sacrifice, as they empty piggy banks to help the children of Afghanistan. President Bush's appeal to American children to donate $1 each has brought in more than $1 million. Other school fundraisers with names like "Pennies for People" and "Nickels for New York" seek to help Americans affected by the tragedy.
At the same time, sacrifice is becoming a contentious issue in Washington. Two liberal citizen and taxpayer groups are objecting to an economic stimulus package in the House that would give major businesses $25 billion in tax refunds.
Last week, the Institute for America's Future and Citizens for Tax Justice launched a $300,000 advertising campaign to protest the measure. One ad shows an outstretched corporate hand under the mocking headline, "Sacrifice is for Suckers." Rather than giving "handouts" to businesses, the groups argue, Congress should provide assistance to people who need help.
This weekend, as the nation observes Veterans Day, Americans will pay tribute to the ultimate military sacrifice - lives lost in defending the country. In declaring next week National Veterans Awareness Week, Bush praised previous generations of veterans for their character. He also called on a new generation to set its own examples through service and sacrifice.
Sacrifice takes many forms, depending on the needs of the times. Ration books might be passé, but the grandchildren of the growers of victory gardens could discover a new kind of satisfaction as they give up obsessive self-interest and the cynicism that sometimes goes with it. Sacrifice, they may soon learn, is not for suckers.