The passenger trains haven’t stopped at the old railway station in Cambridge, Ont., in years, but almost every time I drive past it I have an eerie sensation that the platform is bustling.
In my mind, locomotives creak to a halt, belching steam and coal smoke. Young men in serge battledress disentangle themselves from their loved ones, hoist their kits over their shoulders and fall into line until they’re ordered to board. As the train labours out of the station, well-wishers gather themselves together and shuffle toward the exit.
I spent my early childhood in Cambridge (then called Galt), and I know these images have their origins in stories my father told us about life there during the Second World War. The railway station was only a block away from my father’s high school. Many his age went straight from the classroom to the waiting troop trains. Some never saw the station again.
My most recent encounter with the ghosts of the Galt railway station happened last summer. We were in town for the wedding of my 25-year-old nephew. As we drove past the station, it occurred to me that people his age in the 1940s had already survived the Great Depression and been to war and back. They had learned how to fly fighter planes in England, had dodged torpedoes in the North Atlantic, fought house-to-house in Italy and survived Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. Or maybe they worked in armaments factories, training schools or hospitals. Afterward, they settled down and built the greatest economy the world has ever known.
I’ve been thinking about that generation because I’ve been thinking about my own. Theodore Roszak, author of the influential 1969 book The Making of a Counter Culture, has a new book out called The Making of an Elder Culture. It suggests that my generation is poised for greatness in old age. Roszak writes, “How likely is it that a generation that grew up on the novels of Jack Kerouac, J. D. Salinger and Ken Kesey; the poetry of Alan Ginsberg; the folk music of Pete Seeger; the anarchic insolence of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the acid rock of Bob Dylan . . . will settle, in their later years, for their parents’ idea of retirement any more than they settled, in their youth, for their parents’ idea of success and happiness?”
Some generations earn greatness; others merely claim it. Roszak’s remarkably flimsy thesis echoes my generation’s tendency to dismiss anything that isn’t labelled boomer.
I worry that while we are busy rejecting our elders and proclaiming our own eminence, we are losing our connection to a truly great generation and the core values that sustained it — enduring virtues like fairness, integrity and care for others. The values that young men and women from places like Galt, Ont., fought and died for will sustain us and our children, too. We reject them at our peril.
On the 11th of this month, we will pause to pay respect to those who have fallen in our name. That is as it should be. But I know that in those moments of silence, I will see images of the living, too. I will remember what they accomplished, and I will thank them for simply being who they are.
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