Usually, dining out at Chik-Fil-A results in little more than seeing a five year-old spill a Coke all over the floor – that, and a general galactic rise in bad cholesterol due to deep fried chicken in combo with at least one “Chik-Fil-A sauce” packet…per bite. Mhmmmm.
But today was different.
As I gobbled down my deliciousness on the patio outside, I noticed an older gentleman sort of lingering in the opposite corner. It wasn’t long before I wafted a very familiar and very decent smell. Cigarette smoke. The man must have been at least in his very late 60’s – given his general balding and gray hair and slightly stooped physique. I guessed him at mid 70s, and also realized that, though they were the Lucky-Strike-filters-are-for-losers generation, it was actually a rare site to see anyone – much less the elderly – smoking in public. In the suburbs no less. (Gasp!) This is the cardinal sin. Neglect your kids, cheat on your wife – get fat and lazy on McDonald’s; but don’t you dare blow secondhand smoke in the suburbs. The suburbanites will report you to the local H.O.A – and you’ll be promptly castrated in the chairman’s garage at the next meeting.
I almost went up and asked him if I could bum a cigarette just to keep him company.
And then I heard it.
The mid-30s couple sat a few chairs over from me. They were both fat, but not morbidly so, I’ll grant them that. But sinister, ignorant hypocrisy is what followed. The lady looked at her husband, scowled, rolled her eyes – and then came the under-the-breath slither. “That’s disgusting.”
For a brief moment, I considered losing it. I refrained. I thought about it again. I looked at the old gentleman. He seemed not to have heard it. I leaned back in my chair and shot the lady the meanest death glare I could muster while under the euphoric influence of fried, boneless chicken.
Tom Brokaw wrote a book called The Greatest Generation. His thesis is simple: The World War II generation of Americans were, quite simply, the greatest our country, and arguably the world, has ever seen. Ever.
And while it seems a broad claim, I agree with it. The generation of my grandfathers – the generation of this man, standing in a corner of Chik-Fil-A and quietly smoking – as a generation, was remarkable.
From The Art of Manliness blog:
Every generation has its share of men who fully live the art of manliness. But there may never have been a generation when the ratio of honorable men to slackers was higher than the one born between 1914 and 1929. These were the men that grew up during the Great Depression. They’re the men who went off to fight in the Big One. And they’re the men who came home from that war and built the nations of the Western world into economic powerhouses. They knew the meaning of sacrifice, both in terms of material possessions and of real blood, sweat, and tears. They were humble men who never bragged about what they had done or been through. They were loyal, patriotic, and level-headed. They were our Greatest Generation.
“The ratio of honorable men to slackers.” I love that. Put that ratio to the test today. I think you’d have a hard time disagreeing that the scales are heinously tilted the other way. Heinously. And no, “honor” does not come from playing the Call of Duty video game. That’s in the “slacker” category, you lazy pukes.
The Greatest Generation absolutely puts us to shame. I don’t want to be one of those apocalyptic whiners who sees the current moment as perpetually the worst ever, but even with a level head, I agree with Will McAvoy in The Newsroom. We are, without a doubt, the “Worst, period. Generation, period. Ever, period.”
My grandfathers’ generation built business from the ground up. And that was AFTER they fought the greatest, most excruciating war in history.
From “The Art of Manliness” and “The Greatest Generation”:
In a time where individuals and businesses reach for a bailout or the easy fix of bankruptcy to make things right, stories like that of Wesley Ko inspire. Soon after the war, Ko started a printing business. After 35 years of working hard to transform it into a successful company, he decided to relocate his business from Philadelphia to upstate New York. Ko personally guaranteed the 1.3 million dollar loan needed to make the move. The transition did not go as expected, and Ko’s company faced several setbacks; after only a year, he was forced to go out of business. Ko said, “It was a big decision making time. I couldn’t retire. I hadn’t taken out Social Security. So at the age of seventy I had to go get a job and start paying back that million-dollar loan. I just didn’t feel comfortable with declaring bankruptcy. I just didn’t think it was the honorable thing to do, even though it would have been easier.
And my generation has Occupy Wall Street. Ugh. I’m so ashamed.
The Greatest Generation built things, and embraced responsibility. They were remarkably humble, and somehow…somehow, carried on with life after going to war at 18 years-old and watching their high school buddies get killed, and killing men themselves, and parachuting out of the sky when parachuting was not a sport; and going months in foxholes without showers, and on and on and on. Just think about that. Think about being out in a fox hole for weeks on end with no shower. Think about pooping over a hole in the ground in the freezing cold after you’d been shot at for hours on end. Think about that, and then realize that your Call of Duty video game doesn’t mean, in the words of Chris Farley – JACK. SQUAT.
And somehow, after all of that, the Generation came home and worked jobs and got married and raised families and didn’t even think about getting divorced, and started the very businesses that now afford me such a lucrative degree of economic insanity that I, instead of sweating in the fields or putting in overtime at the machine shop, may rather spend my Saturday sitting in an air-conditioned library typing on a laptop.
Another story goes like this. And when I read this I felt ashamed that I’d ever honked at an old man in traffic or gotten aggravated with an elder for moving slow in line or being a grump or taking an extra minute to complain about something at the store.
Again, from Brokaw’s book via “The Art of Manliness”:
In Brokaw’s book, The Greatest Generation, he remembers his mother telling him the story of the day Gordon Larsen came into the post office where she worked. Larsen was typically a cheerful and popular member of their community, but that day he had stopped in to complain about the rowdiness of the teenagers the night before, which had been Halloween. Brokaw’s mother was surprised at his tone and asked him good-naturedly, “Oh Gordon, what were you doing when you were seventeen?” Gordon looked at her squarely in the eye and said, “I was landing at Guadalcanal.” He then turned and left the post office.
And this lady at Chick-Fil-A has the audacity to even let the thought cross her mind that she ought to criticize this man having a cigarette?
I didn’t stand up on the table and defend the old man’s right to smoke, but maybe I should have. I had one of those mental moments however, where I lapsed into one of those anger-ridden daydreams of rage. I saw myself going crazy. This would have been a rant for the ages:
Excuse me ma’am. And believe me when I say that what follows is said with absolutely no due respect. But are you kidding me?? Are you really going to gripe at this gentleman smoking a cigarette…in a public place? Outside? Seriously? How old do you think this man is? Let’s say 70, just to pick a round number. Now – at that age, do you not think it is entirely likely that this man served in combat in that little incident called The Second World War? Do you not think that it is furthermore entirely likely – and in all cases extremely probable – that this same man fought and bore arms, and put his life in the gravest of danger, and trained and went to extreme lengths of discomfort; to fight to preserve the freedoms of the country in which your over-fed self currently sits??
Is it not entirely likely that this man watched his friends bleed to death on the field of battle – that he, at the Army’s command, drafted his own legal will in the face of very likely death when he was half your age? Do you not recognize that this man, and his friends, and their entire generation, fought and died to preserve the same liberties that allow you to sit and yap freely in public? It’s not a factual truism, lady. It’s not some cute piece of history that we recite on Memorial Day because it makes us feel fuzzy to be Americans. These men died for you and I – and everyone sitting here. They died. Death.
Do you understand that?! They were 20 years-old and they DIED. They had more potential and more energy and more capability to a single man than this entire restaurant full of ingrates combined, and they jumped out of a boat with a gun in their hands and a pack on their backs and got shot through the neck and bled to death on a god-forsaken beach…and all their buddies got shot and died too. They wrote love letters home just a couple of days before. They were going to get married and have lives. They wanted to eat on a patio with their wife, just the same as you are sitting here doing right now. But they died, on a beach; bleeding and choking in the sand and crying out to God. They gave it all for the cause. And that’s no bullshit cliche. That’s not something we say just to be nice and fulfill our screwed-up sense of how we ‘honor’ the veterans.
We know nothing of honor. They honored us. And you return that honor, that sacrifice – those thousands and millions of men who died a thousand million deaths – by criticizing this man having a smoke? Do you not think, that given all of this, you might consider allowing this man to blow one waft of smoke in your face as he huddles in the corner of a Chick-Fil-A in the middle of a snotty suburb – a suburb which, without his blood sweat and tears would most definitely not exist – a relatively minor sacrifice!? Now shut your face and show some respect.
Rant over. All the onlookers would gaze on with gaping mouths – a few would clap. I’d nod at the old gentleman and look him in the eye and convey without any more words a sense of deep gratitude and deep respect. I’d turn and walk out in silence. I’d have said my piece. The anger would subside. The lady would be left in dazed confusion, her psyche and worldview so slaughtered by history and perspective that she’d probably spend hours at home later, crying and re-evaluating her life.
I blinked and stopped daydreaming in rage. I could have said all that. Maybe I should have. Next time I will.
Until then, I hope that whoever’s reading takes a moment to consider, and reflect. In the end, it’s not really about the lady or her stupid comment (we’ve all made thousands) or my egotistical need to vindicate those who I deem righteous. It’s all much simpler than that.
It’s a story of generations and history and life. It’s a contrast of years, of people and places and perspectives. Today is September 11th, and on this day it’s an easy thing to feel a hazy, lump-in-the-throat patriotism. But what my generation only feels, the Greatest Generation actually did. We talk about it and, at best, think about it. My grandfather’s did it. They just shut up and did the hard work, and they died in the hardest of wars. My generation…we look so, just, pathetic in comparison. We play videogames and take massive amounts of existence for granted. We very well may be the “worst, period, generation, period, ever, period.”
Maybe we change that. Maybe we go and spend a little extra time with our grandma or grandpa this week – or at least make a habit of refraining to honk at our greatest generation in traffic. And if the occasion calls for it, I hope that you and I get the chance to indeed yell at a fat suburbanite in defense of an old gentleman’s right to smoke. Until then, we ought to consider what we are as a generation, and more importantly, what we should be.