TALES FROM THE FRONT; AFTER THE DEPRESSION AND THE STRAINS OF WAR,ONE GENERATION HELPED BUILD A NEW AMERICA

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My theory of how capitalism's mighty marketing concept caught on with a generation of Americans after World War II ended is based on nothing more than personal experience.

For the 11 million of us who are now between 68 and 73 years of age-a mere 6% of the U.S. population-the idea of offering goods and services that satisfy consumers by delivering what they want had its roots in the ways we kids grew up before the war. We grew up in a simpler time, back when Henry Ford was making cars in one color, black, take it or leave it.

The Great Depression was playing in every neighborhood, in every town. However, no matter where we were being raised in the '30s and '40s, the fears, pressures and distractions that kids of today must contend with simply were unknown to us. Home-centered, we were to become the last generation allowed the luxury of raw optimism and a nodding acquaintance with what today are considered old-fashioned family values.

Then the war came. We poured everything we had into winning it, and we prevailed. Unfortunately, the churning, complacency-shattering currents of social and political change that the war unleashed have brought new turbulence into the world.

In my case, as a kid of 9, 10, 11, growing up near Yankee Stadium, where they'd let us in free just because we were kids, it was a friendly, open and happy time for us.

When we moved to the suburbs, FDR was serving his first term and we believed the New Deal would repair the Depression's wreckage. We also believed that we'd get by through sharing, hard work and sacrifice, and that once the Depression ended, we'd live in a world of plenty. It was, as I said, a simpler time in America.

Then Hitler came into power and began making his demands, and we'd listen as radio's H.V. Kaltenborn spoke about the potential for another war. Letters began arriving, miraculously, from long-lost, desperate relatives in Europe, and we became more serious about world affairs. We believed that the U.S., with its unique spirit and strength, would prevail.

After all, what else was the New York World's Fair about? The glimpse of "The World of Tomorrow" inspired us. We were excited about the prospects of a world with TV.

But first we had to get past the war that began in September 1939. It had split us apart between isolationism and intervention.

As our political dialogue boiled over, the Japanese, "the Japs" we called them in those days, bombed Pearl Harbor. Instantly, national unity was restored. We focused on mobilizing our factories, our manpower, everything we had, and winning. And preserving freedom. Into the armed forces went my brother, our cousins, neighbors and our older friends. With my trusty bike, I would serve our civilian air raid unit as a messenger during blackout drills.

Despite growing wartime shortages, home front morale was high. Confidence was palpable. No question about it; for our British and Russian allies we would supply more manpower, planes, tanks, shells, bombs, guns, ships, and we'd bring peace, freedom and prosperity to the entire world. The future was that clear.

As high school seniors, we enlisted in the Reserves, Army or Navy, and awaited the call to service once we turned 18. In fact, I was still 17, just out of high school and starting a job with the Associated Press, when my call-up telegram arrived. Within hours, I was on my way to a training base with hundreds of other teen-agers fresh out of high school.

Quick cut to 1945: V-E Day has come and the ubiquitous GI slogan, "Kilroy was here," has been superseded by a poignant "Home alive in '45."

On the road from Berlin to Marseilles, where we were to ship to the Philippines to prepare for our invasion of Japan, we learned from The Stars & Stripes that "we" had dropped "The Bomb," whatever the hell that was, on Japan. We were told this would bring a quick end to the Pacific war and no further need for our services. I know that at least one company of GI survivors cheered the news.

One incident from our Marseilles stopover: We came upon police and French MPs who were struggling with Moroccan soldiers. The men were sprawled on the cobblestones of Le Canebiere, the city's main drag, refusing to board nearby troop ships. The Moroccans were shouting, "No In-do-sheen." The French told us the Moroccans didn't want to go to Indochine. "In-doh-sheen" indeed. We felt sorry for those poor bastards, fierce combat soldiers we had come to respect enormously, but Indochine? It meant nothing to us, and we soon turned away and went back to our revelries. Years later of course, Indochine, as Vietnam, would take on enormous meaning to the sons we were to raise in a more dangerous world.

Once home and proudly sporting shiny "ruptured duck" lapel pins that advertised "honorably discharged" status, millions of us began the quest for college educations, courtesy of FDR's GI Bill of Rights. We also had the "52-20 Club," unemployment compensation of $20 a week for 52 weeks, to aid our peacetime transition. We would date, become engaged, work, marry, buy a house, work, play, raise two children, work, play.

Today we're being referred to in some papers as "The World War II Cohort to the Depression Generation," meaning that we're being defined by events that occurred during our formative years.

We're also told that we're distinguished by a "save a lot, spend a little" mentality. And we're described in Fortune as a generation unified by the shared experience of a common enemy and goal. This group is said to have become intensely romantic and marked by a sense of self-denial that outlived the war. I believe that part of the romance was a concept of freedom that welcomed original ideas and creative thinking, that offered everyone more choices, not fewer.

A severe housing shortage that confronted young marrieds provided a perfect setup for the wartime assembly line-prefab concept. Builder William Levitt adapted it to construct 17,500 basic four-room houses to be sold for $6,900. Other builders borrowed his techniques. Marketers quickly began to fill those homes with what young families needed-refrigerators, air conditioners, freezers, lawn furniture, TV sets, carpeting, clothing, toiletries and cars. In all colors. The world's first marketing frenzy was under way.

Skimp? Save? Ration? Do without? Sacrifice? Been there, done that. Now we were ready for new and more choices and a better life.

In a very narrow sense, perhaps we had gone through our wartime trials partly because we sensed, deep down, that if we could live and become civilians again, we'd help create a great marketplace.

For the kids who grew up when choices were limited, maybe that's their lasting legacy.

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