By Tori Nelson
There’s no question that we are all living through a historic time. The planet is reeling from a pandemic the likes of which we haven’t seen since 1918. No continent is unscathed, no country immune, no individual routine untouched. Every day life as we know it, is different and will be for some time. Possibly forever. Those who lived through the Spanish Flu are gone now, but our new coronavirus reality bears a lot in common with another global upheaval: World War II. So I thought it’d be informative to have a conversation with my father, Shep, who was a 13-year-old living outside New York City in 1944, and my nephew Sam, who is a 13-year old living outside Boston, to compare and contrast the two experiences of being a child during a time of worldwide crisis.
Perhaps the most glaring similarity is the inability to escape it. As my father wrote in his private memoir, “Being a country at war permeated our lives. If you walked down a busy street or boarded a train, servicemen in uniform were usually part of the crowd. If you picked up a newspaper, war reports overshadowed all other news. If you went to the movies, the war was always featured in the newsreels, and was often the subject of the featured film itself.” The current war may have an invisible enemy in COVID-19, but there’s still no getting away from it. We’re either stuck inside with wall-to-wall media coverage and forced-zoom calls, or we’re venturing out with our faces covered, forced to stand 6 feet away from masked friends and front-line workers. The reminders are everywhere.
Also shared between the generations: An uncertainty about how it ends, yet a confidence knowing that it will.
Cancelations and shortages are also common denominators. This year, the Olympic Games, baseball, basketball, football - all have been scratched or delayed, travel plans are on ice - you can’t get there from here, and there’s a run on toilet paper, cleaning products, dried pasta, and exercise equipment. During the war, my father recalls that sugar, rubber, gasoline and appliances were rationed either due to scarcity or because the military needed them more.
And nearly everyone knows someone impacted by, or involved with, the crisis. Sam’s great-uncle died of COVID-19, and his cousin’s wife is an orthopedic surgeon treating some COVID patients in the ER in a hospital at risk of running low on personal protection equipment; masks, gowns, gloves. My father’s father was in the Army Air Corps, his cousin was in the Navy dealing with Nazi U-boats and his mother taught illiterate soldiers how to read and write.
And my father also made an important observation about the mood in the US: “In the war, we were the UNITED states; everyone was behind the war effort." We could use a little of that 1940’s esprit de corps here in 2020.
There’s also universal gratitude for those engaged in the hand-to-hand combat. Sam says the doctors and nurses struggling to treat patients with the virus “are kind of like soldiers fighting on the front lines. And without them, so many more people would’ve died.” Shep also felt a deep admiration for those shipped overseas “and sacrificed so much” to do battle on foreign soil.
Also shared between the generations: An uncertainty about how it ends, yet a confidence knowing that it will. We have no idea when a successful vaccine will make it to market, but Sam is sure that one is on the horizon and that, once available, will return some sense of normalcy to his life. Likewise, my dad said that even during the infamous “darkest hour,” he was “always confident that we’d win.” And he vividly remembers sitting at lunch during summer camp in August 1945, when word arrived that the US had beaten the Japanese. “It was a huge relief. The victory was so overwhelming.” Someday, Sam’s memory will be similarly seared with where he was when victory over COVID-19 is announced.
My father says WWII forced his generation to grow up more quickly. But the country rebounded. We can hope the current generation of young people will learn from this crisis and create a stronger, better world because of it.
There are of course differences, including Sam and Shep’s day-to-day experiences. When the pandemic first hit, Sam couldn’t go to school, couldn’t see his friends ("the worst thing by far" for him) and couldn’t go out to any public place. Back in the mid-1940’s, my father still went to school every day, got to bike around town with his friends and go to stores and movies. And he got a break from the news. There was no 24-hour coverage back then. My father read the newspapers every morning and stayed up late at night listening to the radio, especially as the Allies mounted the mammoth D-Day invasion of France. Today, there’s round-the-clock TV coverage, tablets, phones, podcasts, email alerts and social media. Sam admits he doesn't talk about the pandemic much with his friends, but his brother shares updates from Instagram, and his family discusses it at dinner. If he chose to, though, he could read headlines that change by the minute.
And my father also made an important observation about the mood in the US: “In the war, we were the UNITED states; everyone was behind the war effort. Everyone bought war bonds. Kids like me collected kettles to be turned into airplanes; there was a great esprit de corps. Politics virtually vanished.” Today, there are deep divisions in this country over how to combat the virus while simultaneously protecting the economy. As Sam wisely noted, “we can’t get rid of [the virus] unless every person helps out. If one person stops carrying the load that everyone has to bear in this pandemic, then the whole situation comes crashing down again.” We could use a little of that 1940’s esprit de corps here in 2020.
There’s no question that living through a crisis will have a permanent impact on a child’s life. My father says WWII forced his generation to grow up more quickly. But the country rebounded. Likely, our young ones will grow up a little faster, as well. We can only hope the current generation of young people will follow the lead of their grandparents, learn from their crisis and create a stronger, better world because of it.
Tori is one of the founders and anchors of KidNuz, as well as the KidNuz board president. She’s been a broadcast journalist for over 30 years, is the mother of 2 sons and is currently living in Singapore.