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The Middle Ages: Ode to ‘Greatest Generation’

Light a candle or glisten a glass for Dick Spicuzza. Dick died the other day. He was our neighbor growing up, the busybody banker next door who found no greater glee than in puttering around the yard all weekend. Unclear exactly all that Dick accomplished in the yard, except that he did it with alacrity and a sort of French joy.

Dick was a dream neighbor, as was his wife, Pat. They had a son and three daughters who were as good-natured as their folks. Lord, we closed down a lot of summer days together, playing like squirrels across big prairie lawns of suburban Chicago. It was how childhood should always be, filled with shards of sunlight and the residue of Popsicles. May through August, no one wore shoes.

While you’re at it, light a candle or glisten a glass for our friend Linda’s dad, Gene Brogmus, who died the other day at 91. He was of that same age group – what has come to be known as “the Greatest Generation.”

“It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has produced,” Tom Brokaw wrote.

“They stayed true to their values of personal responsibility, duty, honor, and faith.”

Raised in the misery of the Great Depression, they also worked like dogs. Played that way, too.

At Gene’s service in Los Angeles, old photos filled a table. He came from a time when it seemed that the main duty of men was to hunt. While in Europe during World War II, Gene used to sneak off to pursue game birds with a rifle, not a shotgun, which is easier and much preferred.

That eulogistic gem was mostly lost on the L.A. crowd, who wouldn’t know a rifle from a lamppost. Just note that hunting pheasant with a rifle is a very sporting way of going about it – like attacking the moon with a slingshot, or like you or me trying to marry a Rothschild.

Men are their stories, and Gene had a million. One of the best was about how, as German tanks approached, he hooked up a farmer’s ox to get his broken jeep going again.

Relatives remarked that Gene would tell the same stories over and over – “but you didn’t care.” (I mean, if I had a war story about an ox that saved me from the Germans, I would’ve told it every single day.)

And, finally, light a candle or glisten a glass for Jeanne Kelley, one of my late mother’s few remaining childhood friends. Jeanne passed away recently, too. She was a single mom in an era when everyone stayed married no matter what.

Since grade school, she and Mom were friends and often rivals. I think they were still a little mad at each other over something that must have happened in fourth grade.

By herself, the school bus driver raised three of the most remarkable daughters the world has ever seen. One used to baby-sit for us. Like a character from “Dobie Gillis,” she would arrive in sneakers and a pleated tennis skirt, and once my folks left, her feral boyfriends would arrive to woo her. Back in the buttoned-down mid-’60s, this is what passed for sex education.

The deaths of Dick, Gene and Jeanne signal the end of an era. That generation seems to be hanging on by a few final threads. I realize it every holiday now, when I no longer have a parent left to call to wish Happy Easter or Merry Christmas.

Yet their legacy, as Brokaw noted, is amazing. During their run, Hitler was defeated, polio conquered, two evils that today’s children can barely even explain, let alone appreciate.

In day-to-day life, they were smart about a buck; they took pride in fixing things instead of quickly trashing them.

Given all they saw, that generation could have been fretful and glum, but they were anything but that. They were rarely even wistful. They made enough history to take nothing for granted – a slice of pie, a day at the races, a cigar rolled just right.

These days, one of the laments you hear from the few who are left: “Seems all my friends are gone now.”

Ah, but they’re not.

As you light your candle, or swirl your scotch, note that none of these three won a major prize, had a hit record or cured anything minor or substantial. One built airplanes, another built banks, the third drove thousands of kids safely to school on mornings cold enough to shatter tempered steel.

Their lives may be over, but their afterglow endures.