Kennedy: The Greatest Generation: Words from the wise

Kennedy: The Greatest Generation: Words from the wise

August 7th, 2014 by Mark Kennedy in Opinion Columns

Lucy Powell, 93, shows off one of the little girls dresses she has made for charity. Powell is a veteran of WWII, having served in the Women's Army Corp.

Photo by Mark Kennedy/Times Free Press.

Mark Kennedy

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Fewer than 10 percent of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are still alive, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

For our country, the loss is outrageous.

For decades, members of the so-called Greatest Generation -- basically those born before 1925 -- have been the ballast in ship America.

I suspect the reason the 21st century feels unmoored is that so few Americans remember the shared hardship of the Great Depression and World War II. Almost everyone who lived through that one-two punch of human misery emerged with superpowers.

While they are still living we need to soak up their wisdom, beg them for their secrets. It was with that mindset that I went last week to visit Lucy Powell, 93, a veteran of the Women's Army Corps, or WACs. Up on a wall above her bed in The Courtyard at Deer Ridge, a senior community in Dayton, Tenn., Powell has a little shadow box for her WWII medals.

"One for going in [to the service], one for getting out," she says, dismissively.

Powell is something of a rock star in Rhea County. Employed for 24 years as a nurse at Rhea County Medical Center, she enjoys the kind of small-town fame that comes from living a long, virtuous life in one place.

Mother of seven, nurse to thousands, she married her childhood sweetheart, Howard Powell, months after the end of WWII. They met as teenagers in the late 1930s. Howard attended high school at Sale Creek; Lucy went to nearby Rhea County High School.

During the war, Howard was drafted into the Army. He became a sharpshooter who fought at the Battle of the Bulge. Typical of the men of his generation, he didn't talk much about his experiences after the war, his children say. Instead, he settled into life as a family man, church deacon and home builder.

For her part, Lucy ran into an Army recruiter at her local post office shortly before her 21st birthday and decided to join the WACs. The Women's Army Corps started as an auxiliary of the U.S. Army, but was later given full military status. Eventually, about 150,000 American women served in the WACs during WWII.

Powell says her decision to join the military and pack off to basic training in Daytona Beach, Fla., didn't sit well with some of the male members of her family. Any sort of military service involving women was controversial back then.

"In those years Dayton was just about deserted, though," Powell remembers. "It was lonesome."

Women in the WACs went through basic training just like men, although they were not assigned to combat roles.

"The mosquitoes about ate us up," Powell recalls of her training in Florida. Some of the female recruits got so sunburned they had to be hospitalized, she said.

During the war, Powell served stateside in a military doctor's office at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, an experience that shaped her later decision to become a nurse.

As we talked last week, I looked for clues to those character traits so associated with the Greatest Generation: thrift, endurance, selflessness, devotion to family. And I found them all.

Powell showed me some little sundresses she has assembled on her Brother sewing machine for a church ministry that sends clothes to poor children overseas. One day a week, she still works as a hospital volunteer, wheeling patients to and from surgery.

She reminisced about a house fire in the early 1980s that consumed many of her family heirlooms, and the heartbreaking death of a daughter in a 1970s airplane crash.

Her daughters described how Powell dutifully cared for her sick husband for seven long years, and how she narrowly escaped death herself recently, only to be saved by emergency surgery on her colon.

Talking to Lucy Powell, I was reminded: There's no such thing as a long, easy life.

But for those of us in the baby boomer generation, it's hard to ignore the fact that our parents seem somehow more evolved and prepared for life's hardships than we are.

At least we've gotten to see how it's done.

To suggest a human interest story Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOL UMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedy columnist.