Tom Ross: Lessons of the WWII generation

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— Even a modest honeymoon trip to Cranberry Lake was a bit problematic when Ed Gawronski and Alice Grzybowski married on July 22, 1944, in Buffalo, N.Y.

The beaches of Normandy had been invaded about a month earlier and the Battle of the Bulge was yet to come. Gasoline and automobile tires were in short supply as the entire nation sacrificed to aid the war effort.

However, friends and family members found a way to send the young couple on a trip to the Adirondacks. Among the wedding presents were gas-rationing coupons. And a friend of the groom's parents took the tires off his own car to replace the bald tires on the 1939 Plymouth that was to serve as the honeymoon chariot.

The honeymoon was eventful in ways that could not have been anticipated.

The point is that in spite of the fact that many Americans are grieving for lost soldiers, and the rest of us are somewhat fearful of a terrorist attack this summer, life goes on as normal. We attended as many parties as our schedules permitted this weekend, we're planning our summer vacations. While soldiers take hostile fire, we're preoccupied with trout fishing, mountain bike rides and tee times. It wasn't always that way for Americans on the home front during World War II.

Ed Gawronski was disappointed when the Army rejected him because he had bad feet and could not undertake the forced marches of boot camp. Instead, Ed went to work as a toolmaker in a Chevy plant in Tonawanda, N.Y., that was contracted to build Pratt and Whitney engines for bombers and fighter planes. Ed was on the third shift in a plant that worked around the clock.

"There were no vacations," Ed recalled. "It was eight hours with 20 minutes for lunch, seven days a week. If you missed two or three days, you would be suspended."

Before taking the job in the airplane engine plant, Ed was making 35 cents an hour as a printer. His new job paid a handsome 75 cents an hour along with the pride that resulted from helping with the war effort. On the other side of the country, John Ross was still in high school and too young to enter the military. He and his father, Floyd, struggled to harvest 200 acres of hay with a horse and wagon even though they owned a little Oliver tractor on the ranch east of Prineville, Ore.

"There were no hired hands any more," John explained. "We went from a dozen men to zero."

Although fuel for farmers was given a relatively high priority, they didn't have enough gas-rationing coupons to operate the tractor as much as they would have liked. John still recalls that it took 42 days to bring in the hay that summer.

Beth Ross remembers bringing a quarter to school every Friday to put away toward a war bond -- when the school children built up $18.75, they received a bond that would pay off $25 10 years into the future. People in Oregon were so conservative with gasoline, that on a trip to Portland on the other side of the Cascades, they would take the car out of gear and coast into the Willamette Valley.

Gas wasn't the only thing that was rationed -- sugar and the nylon that went into women's hosiery were in tight supply. Women purchased paint kits to create the illusion of nylons on their calves, and even went as far as painting a seam down the back of their legs to complete the effect. There were far greater sacrifices being made. At a high school in Portland, several student leaders were missing from the classrooms when school began in the fall -- their families had been sent to internment camps for Japanese Americans.

The fear of invasion was palpable on the Oregon coast, where residents conformed to strict blackout requirements. Tight fitting blackout curtains were fitted to the windows of homes so that no light would leak out at night, robbing enemy submarines of the opportunity to fix landmarks on the Oregon Coast.

Shifting to the here and now -- I couldn't help wondering Saturday afternoon, while soaking up the youthful exuberance during commencement exercises , How many of this year's high school graduates in the Yampa Valley will be picking up a rifle before commuting to work in the suburbs of Baghdad next Memorial Day? And will I do anything during the intervening 12 months to acknowledge their sacrifices?

All of us are recalling with solemnity this Memorial Day the sacrifices of America's veterans. However, in another era, people at home were sacrificing too. So, what sacrifice makes sense for us today? Help may be needed most in Iraq itself, where the lives of many thousands of children have been disrupted. Several organizations including Medical Aid for Iraqi Children, Oxfam America and Unicef have strong efforts under way.

But the one that resonates this Memorial Day/Graduation weekend is OperationIraqichildren.org, being spearhead by actor Gary Sinise and the FedEx Corp. They are putting together an effort to send packages of school supplies to children in Iraq so that they can hope to graduate from high school one day.

There isn't one of us who cannot make a small sacrifice for this cause.

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