My son, Josh, went off to college 36 years ago. Shortly after arriving on campus, he encountered a man distributing leaflets. Who was the man, and what did his leaflets say?
The man was a neo-Nazi, and his leaflets disparaged Jews and blacks. Josh grabbed the leaflets and threw them in a nearby trash can which precipitated a fight with nearby students encouraging him on. Indeed, one announced, “My wife is a lawyer and she’ll defend you for free.”
A policeman showed up, quickly separated the fighters, and demanded to know what happened.
On listening to both men, the policeman, who was black, arrested the neo-Nazi and suggested Josh leave. In fact, the story in the newspaper identified him as an “unknown assailant.”
I admired what my son did, knowing we both believe fights are always a last resort. I also believe that had I been in his situation, I’d have hesitated. Instead, he saw fighting Nazism as the only option.
And this gets me to the point of this column: How is it two people who lived together for 18 years could see things so differently? I knew what our earlier lives were like, the things we talked about, and our mutual experiences.
What’s more, I’d also spent most of my career teaching people his age and years volunteering with youth groups. But none of these things explained how he came to confront and then fight a neo-Nazi.
So I read about the differences between me — a member of the Silent Generation (i.e., folks born between 1925 and 1945) — and my Generation X son (born between 1965 and 1985). My question was how the things he learned growing up in my home were trumped by the world in which he grew up. Well, I found out.
Where did I look for an answer? In Wikipedia under the heading of Generations.
What did I learn about members of the Silent Generation? First, our parents grew up in the Great Depression and often fought in WWII — both issues resulting in their putting off having kids until they had more affluent lives for their families and better homes to house them than they experienced growing up. Thus while my friends and I grew up in a lower middle-class neighborhood, we were encouraged to study hard, work hard, save money for college, and aspire, aspire, aspire. And we did. Of the seven boys I grew up with, two have PhD's, another is a PhD-MD, and yet another has two PhD’s. One has a JD and the last "only" a masters. But during his career with the U.S. Information Agency, he was cited for bravery for safely leading reporters through gunfire.
What we didn’t focus on growing up were social issues like poverty and racism. We knew these things existed, and that they were evil, but that was it. We missed these things because we were encouraged to find friends in our own community and avoid schoolmates who lived in neighborhoods that were not white or were lower class.
Happily, there were Silent Generationers more liberal than me and my friends. And they grew up participating in the civil rights movement and, indeed, led it at the time when Generation Xers came along. My friends and I joined them, but we were young adults at the time while Gen Xers were teens.
In other words, my son and his contemporaries grew up with integration. So unlike me and my friends, he and his buddies saw these issues less as things to be debated and more as things to be accomplished in the course of making freedom universal. And, I expect, his understanding of the neo-Nazi, the black policeman and the bystanders all fit in to those understandings.
Figuring all this out helps me understand that my son’s “generational” experiences both led him to do what he did that long ago morning, and that offered me yet another reason to be so very proud of him.
Hank Slotnick is a retired UND professor who, with his wife, winters in Pima, Ariz., and summers in Debs.