Jim Dowlen is 73, a child of the Greatest Generation. He retired 14 years ago from a career with the U.S. Postal Service. He lives on the same land on Levi Road as his father and his father's father.
A Presbyterian and Democrat, he owns an antique Studebaker, harvests his own molasses and for decades — like his school-bus-driving father before him — devoted his career to public service.
His son Jeremy is 45, a member of Gen X. He owns a construction company called Third Eye, writes Southern fiction in his spare time and speaks eloquently about transcendentalism. Before the sun rises, he's out cycling for an hour or two.
Jeremy's son Jonathan — Jim's grandson — is 25. An easygoing member of Gen Y, he has hair down to his shoulders, longer than either of the older Dowlens. He works construction with his dad, hunts, gardens and has just bought a used sawmill.
I met the three Dowlens on Thursday when I walked into the Falling Water Baptist Church polling place, where Jim was volunteering as election official, just as his own father had done. Not two minutes after I'd walked in, Wanda Dowlen — Jim's wife — offered me lunch: homemade egg salad and vegetable soup.
I'll never forget that lunch. Not just because it tasted so good — even better when I had seconds — but because of the conversation that followed, best symbolized in five words Jeremy told me over dessert.
"I don't have any heroes," he said.
Playing out across the three generations of Dowlens is a story writ large across America. Jim Dowlen grew up trusting his leaders, believing in his government and the systems that uphold America. Today is the age of distrust and deception. Voter turnout is low, especially among young people. Neither Jonathan nor Jeremy voted this week.
Yet politics is just a stage for the crossroads we've reached.
Trust. Or distrust.
Faith. Or disbelief.
Hope. Or nihilism.
Jim was a child of the Greatest Generation.
"They're more likely to have heroes than [my generation]," Jeremy said.
Jonathan and Jeremy are members of the heroless generation.
What has happened?
Jim grew up during Walter Cronkite. Jeremy, with CNN. Jonathan, the Internet.
"It was a simpler world. We didn't have TV until 1952," said Jim. "The worst thing people at Hixson High ever did was a few boys snuck out behind the school to smoke cigarettes."
Jim grew up with Truman and Eisenhower. Jeremy, born near the death of Martin Luther King Jr., grew up with Nixon, then the fall of the Berlin Wall. Jonathan, with Clinton, 9/11 and Abu Ghraib.
"A lack of integrity, a lack of ethics, is so rampant. There is a lot of greed," Jeremy said, echoing the anthem of 21st century politics.
Which comes first: corruption or disillusionment?
Was politics better decades ago because we thought so? Or better because we didn't know half of what we know today?
Is it worse today because we expect it to be? Would we know a good candidate if we saw her? Or him?
"A hero should be an iconic figure," said Jonathan.
Can heroes exist in our world today? I don't mean firefighters who rush up 9/11 buildings. They are heroic. But heroes are national figures, larger than life. And we want to be like them.
Can you name one national figure you want your kids to imitate? Can you find any teenager today who has national heroes?
We've killed our heroes by magnifying imperfection. I blame my own profession: the media. More than that, almost like an attraction to the lowest common denominator, there's been a cultural flattening, where certain systems — politics, media — work hard at tearing everything down.
It's like a cultural street riot. And it's an American tragedy.
"In order for our society to move forward, we may have to take two steps back," Jonathan said.
Jonathan and Jeremy are both nearing self-sustainability: Owners of a wood stove, they hunt, garden, fish, doing things their previous generations worked to overcome. A push for self-sustainability is admirable, but also slightly apocalyptic, suggesting a post-American empire is near.
And it might be.
But perhaps we find our solution here: a quest to return to some aspects of prior generations, where responsibility and honor were real things. Yet we don't forsake the gains — in democracy, justice and information — recent generations have won.
We, wise as serpents and innocent as doves, know what humans are capable of.
And we still choose to believe in one another.
David Cook is the metro columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. A graduate of Red Bank High, Cook holds a Master's Degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English literature degree from University of Tennessee-Knoxville. For the last twelve years, Cook has been a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...