youngsters

I sat in an older audience in attending a forum Tuesday on campus, an event where Mike Ramsdell, author of A Train to Potevka, spoke to his fans and peers. Mike’s retired from his service in our country’s covert operations, and Mike talked about Patriotism. I like Mike. He’s affable, certainly approachable and has a great sense of humor, calculated even, but what would anyone expect from a person who’s learned that correct communication is a matter of life or death.

It’s what Mike said and what the audience confirmed without hesitation that flamed a slow burn I’ve been feeling for awhile, a burn stoked lately by the president of the college where I teach in referring to our students as “youngsters.” Mike made a remark indicating that our young people don’t know what patriotism is, or don’t appreciate what it means.

References to young people are tritely familiar. Go back any generation and hear the same complaints. I catch myself making much the same discount with my own teenagers and reel at the phrases I say that I promised I’d never mutter.

I live on the very back porch of the greediest generation in the history of this country. Born in 1962, the US census bureau puts my birth date two years short of Generation X. Strauss and Howe in Generations puts me at the front porch instead. I’d like to claim it. X.

Boomers lowered their own tax liabilities and loop-holed their way into capital gains that have ultimately shut the door on home ownership for Gen Z, our current young people. They traded infrastructure laid and poured by their fathers and mothers for big box, flippers and time share development, octaning their way through opulence never before experienced by previous generations in their SUV’s parked in the McMansions that have replaced the hilltops and bluffs in my home town.

The youngsters work. Call centers, service jobs, retail, door-to-door alarms and insulation and siding. They bag groceries and lug golf bags. They mow lawns and care for sequestered sick old parents as CNA’s at minimum wage. I doubt they’ll see their Social Security benefits, though they’re still paying into them. Wall Street. Main Street. Any address tied to what once was an economic benefit for the American dream of any college student now terminates in the same country code, a code now being sold off to world markets to bail us out of our own greed. Young people did not put us here.

And all the gray heads in that forum audience nod at Mike’s declaration that our young people don’t know what patriotism is. You could hear the tisk-tisk-tisking.

Ruth is a student of mine. Recently married, young, attractive, and a US Army Reservist. Her husband just got home from his tour in Mosul where there’s an airbase and just today US soldiers arrested three Al-Qaeda members. Ruth deploys in a few months. She’s going to Afghanistan.

My reaction to her disclosure wasn’t what she expected. I could see her surprise when I voiced concerns and fears about her deployment. Whatever happens in November, it’s a pretty sure bet we’re going to escalate activity in Afghanistan. We’ll be there much longer than we’ll be in Iraq. But she didn’t blink. She said she’ll be there twelve months and then she’ll be home. She’s enthusiastic and dedicated, looking forward to her service there.

Mitch is one of the brightest, articulate male students I’ve ever had. Returned from a mission for his church he dedicated himself to his major and surpassed expectations. He fell in love and got married and shortly after his honeymoon, Mitch went off to Basic. He’s been selected for OCS in the Marines. His internship is his training and his superiors quickly discovered why Mitch should lead Marines.

Angela stopped by my office this week to talk about what she can do with her degree. She can do anything with any degree. Unafraid, bold, sharp. She asked candidly about other universities and colleges in the State. “My husband said I can go anywhere I want.” I asked her what her husband does and her disposition revealed her patriotism. “He just got home from Iraq. He’s being stitched up.”

Chris is soon to be sixteen. His love for cars is eclipsed only by what he feels for his country. On a visit to the Air Force Museum at Hill Air Force Base, we happened to be there on Veteran’s Day. Each aircraft in the displays was accompanied by vets, crew members who had flown missions in similar or in a couple of cases the very planes in those hangers. Chris was just a little tyke, maybe six, and on our way out he stopped and left my side to walk over to a vet standing beneath a B-17, Chris’ favorite war bird. He reached up and shook his hand and said, “Thanks for what you did for our country.”

A while back after the 222nd returned from its first tour in Iraq, Chris and I came across a soldier shopping at our supermarket. Chris went up to him and did the same thing.

His fifteenth birthday was spent aboard the USS Nimitz. The day was awesome with a demonstration of Navy might and the determination of Navy young people. Some rubbed off on him, and I’ll admit that scares me, like Ruth’s deployment, or Mitch’s appointment, not because I fear their competencies – I know of no one more capable – it’s because I love and respect them for who they are and what they represent and for their willingness to serve. It’s not that Ruth or Mitch or Angela’s husband didn’t have other things to do. They didn’t enlist because it was the least objectionable alternative. Angela doesn’t consider a least objectionable alternative. She’s committed. Chris is weighing his options.

Young people.

And there are the punks at Jimmy John’s with their girly pants around their thighs and their bangs hanging in their eyes, and the pierced and tattooed girls who flip their tongue studs between black lipstick; the gamers and the skaters and the emos. They’re kids and they’re a small but highly visual part of the bigger kid-picture. Few take notice of the ones not crying out for attention. Few see the Christofers out there. (As much as I’d like to take the credit for Chris’ patriotic soul, this is a choice that he’s made in following the example of vets and patriots living and dead in his own family.)

Social statistics indicate that some of our young people’s parents are struggling with debt, others with infidelity, Internet porn addiction, and others substance abuse. Most kids come home to an empty house at the end of the day because their single mother or single father or both parents are working. Certainly, there are social issues here and they spill out in manifestations in young people, again tritely familiar. There’s nothing new here.

But there needs to be. There needs to be a new attitude among advanced generations, old people and boomers in regards to young people. It’s time to stop perpetuating stereotypes and conceding to group-thinking that youngsters are inherently (insert derogatory adjective here).

These attitudes inhibit inspiration, they squelch determination and undermine hope. The generation gap has been seen as one that distances from the young side. Sitting in Mike’s audience made me realize that the gulf is well retreated on the old.

Reconnect. Recognize the quality in the hearts of young people who pay your Social Security with their wages. Reverence the service they’ll be to you and our country as uniformed patriots, as voting patriots, as working and tax-paying patriots, and even if all they amount to are the patriot mothers and fathers of Generation A.

In a display case on a cabinet in my home is the triangular folded flag of a dead veteran, my father. His military service began his nineteenth year.

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