I have covered the two generations prior to mine. I can’t tell you how much I admired and respected them. They truly were great generations who brought this country to the pinnacle of its power and prestige.

They created everything our current generation despises: heavy industry, pollution, use of natural resources, mining, oil exploration and on and on we could go.

But suffice it to say what they considered as signs of industrial wealth and power have now been deemed evil.

As a boy in Chicago, I remember the different smells of the city, depending on the wind’s direction: the foul aroma of the stock yards, the hot metal of the steel mills and, in the winter, the smell of coal fires.

The sky changed colors with the wind and the time of the year; a light mustard yellow in the winter when everyone’s furnace was fired up with coal, the almost-white haze coming off of the Stock Yards and the red pallor of the steel mills.

There was always a low-pitched din of industry, the sounds of trains, planes, street cars, automobiles and trucks. Everything in the city either made noise or emitted a variety of odors.

But, we considered these smells and sounds as indicators of the power and wealth of this country and its place in the world.

Smoke stacks do define a nation’s place in the world because, without heavy industry, no nation can maintain its position of dominance on the world stage.

In the summer, my brothers and I went to my grandparents’ farm in Wisconsin. We left the day after school ended and returned to Chicago a couple of days before school started in the fall.

Unlike most of the kids I grew up with, who rarely left the city, we were exposed to two completely different lifestyles.

In the country, unless it was raining, we were free most evenings to grab our fishing poles and a .22, and head off to the creek that ran across the railroad tracks from my grandparents’ farm.

We explored several farms that the creek ran through and wandered all the way to the local dump to shoot rats. 

The Kilkennys owned the farm next to my grandparents, and they had 13 kids and several horses and a Great Dane on about 100 acres of land.

With 13 kids, there was always something to do and, being boys, we were never far away from the edge of trouble. Sometimes we even crossed that edge.

My mother and I butted heads as long as I can remember and as I neared my teen years, that butting became intensified. I was never happy living in the city, and I wanted to go to high school in Wisconsin.

Everything came to head when I was in eighth grade and I started lobbying my grandparents to let me stay with them year-round.

I started my freshman year at Leo High School in Chicago, a Catholic school from which my brother just graduated. I hated it, and my mother and I fought continually about what I wanted.

It finally came to head one day. I called my grandfather and begged him to talk to her and let me come live with them. He and our family doctor agreed with me, that I would do better away from my mother, so off to Wisconsin I went.

I thrived in Wisconsin. I was an average student, but I found myself there. I learned values and interests for which, to this day, I am forever grateful.

Even though I was always a reader and loved history in high school, I had wonderful teachers who encouraged me to follow my interest.

I was involved with wood working, which I still find as my way of finding peace when I am troubled. I learned the practical things that have been useful in my life.

My education in Wisconsin gave me a perspective of life that I would never have found in Chicago. It made me the person, for good or bad, that I have become. To this day, I still use the influence those years instilled in me.

One of the things I learned in Wisconsin from my grandparents, uncles, aunts and school was to step back and look at what was happening around me.

I learned not to just accept what was being told to me but to check it for myself.

One of my grandfather’s favorite sayings was: “What you put into your head by learning can never be taken away from you. I grew up in a country where the government could take everything away from you except what was in your head.”

He believed that you could never learn enough and that learning was a life-long endeavour. My teachers and relatives, especially my uncles, lived by this philosophy.

How does all this play into what my generation has done?

In the early ’50s, the United States and Western Europe were confronted by the Soviet Union, the second nuclear power. We already had had a year-long confrontation with the Soviets over Berlin that resulted in the West carry out the Berlin Airlift.

With the Soviet threat growing every year, the United States realized that for the first time in it’s modern history, the United States was open to being attacked on our own soil.

The government created an atmosphere of fear. That fear translated into air raid drills, the famous “duck and cover” drills that every school kid learned.

The unintended consequence of this was that people started to be fearful. Kids, especially, felt apprehensive.

For the first time in our history, the government actively encouraged the sense of fear that we were feeling. We stopped believing that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

The nation began feeling that it was open to direct attack from another nation and that our two oceans no longer afforded us protection from attack.

The fear was real and it changed the way we looked at ourselves and the world. We no longer felt invincible and, once that feeling became common, we began to question other things.


NEXT WEEK: Those internal questions.


BERNARD LESLIE is a beekeeping expert who lives beside Kentucky Lake in the northeast corner of Henry County. His email address is bleslie0515@gmail.com.

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