Having been born prior to the end of World War II, I am a member of the generation that is sometimes referred to as either the Silent Generation or the Traditionalist Generation. That sandwiches us neatly between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers.
The neighborhood of my youth in Northeast Philadelphia in the late 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s was in a part of the city that featured endless blocks of similar-looking row houses, and almost all of the inhabitants were of European origin or ancestry. Many, like both of my parents, served in the military during WWII. The son of one of our neighbors was quite the celebrity because he had been a fighter pilot in the Pacific theater and had put a bomb right down the smokestack of a Japanese warship, sending it to the bottom.
Like several of my friends, I grew up in a three-generation household. When my mother and father married during the war, they could not afford to buy a home, so they moved in with my father’s widowed mother in that Philadelphia row house where he had grown up as an only child. Because she and her late husband, along with my father, had come to the United States through Ellis Island from Hungary in 1915, I grew up in a culture that featured lots of visits from an extended set of relatives who had also come to the U.S. at about the same time from “the old country.” I enjoyed some wonderful cooking from “Grandmom” that featured lots of paprika, and to this day, I claim that I am rarely cold outside in the winter because of the antifreeze effect of all that paprika that still must be coursing through my bloodstream.
As a family, we had very little money. In the early years, Grandmom worked in a downtown Philadelphia garment factory as a seamstress and a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. My father, who never graduated from high school, had a job making television sets for Philco, which is ironic given my last name. He worked there in quality control as a troubleshooter for his entire working life after being discharged from the Coast Guard. He was the volunteer TV repairman in our neighborhood. My mother had been a radio operator in the Navy but chose to stay at home to raise me and my younger brother.
Neither of my parents had a driver’s license, and we had never owned a car. They finally bought one after a lot of pleading from me in 1961 because I was the only one of my friends who had no access to a car, and asking girls to go out on a date featuring a ride on a bus was definitely not ”cool.” After much debate, they bought a 1957 Ford Fairlane for $750, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven as the exclusive driver. That didn’t last long because my father then decided that he, too, wanted a driver’s license.
You have not lived until, at age 17, you find yourself teaching your proud, patriarchal 55-year-old Hungarian father how to drive and have to deal with the stresses induced by such a reversal in the familial power positions.
After graduating from Penn State and after one more year of living at home while teaching in Center City, Philadelphia, I went into the Army in 1967, married and never lived in their home again.
I now look back on those years as golden, but at the time, I did not see it that way. What I mean to say is that I did not appreciate it then as much as I should have. I have come to understand that I was blessed to grow up in a home that was filled with love, where achievement was expected, where education was valued, where discipline was enforced and where the work ethic was learned by example.
When I revisit those precious memories, especially at this time of year, I cannot help but be reminded of the poetic words of T.S. Eliot:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
Joseph B. Filko has taught economics and American government and lives in Williamsburg. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org