I’m a war baby (born between 1939 and 1945), a member of what author Richard Pells calls “the generation that changed America.” Nice to know!
My particular demographic is generally lumped in with the Silent Generation (1928–1945), considered “traditionalists” — and, well, quiet about it. That designation hardly describes the likes of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, a slew of glittery actors, filmmakers and such sports royalty as Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King, all war babies who were, and are, anything but silent. Joining their ranks certainly beats being bashed as a boomer (1946–1964) and maligned by millennials (1981–1996) for just about everything amiss in the world.
My war baby cred is boosted by the fact that in the immediate aftermath of World War II, our family lived in war-torn Norway, my father’s homeland. When we returned to America, The New York Times misidentified my brother and me as “refugees” in a story accompanying a front-page photograph of us aboard ship. My mother was quick to reassure us, saying, “No, you’re just war babies coming home.”
Indeed, as we grew up in Minnesota, many of our classmates were the children of servicemen who had seen action in Europe or the Pacific. So, does having been spawned in the middle of a global war make us any different from kids born before or after that cataclysmic event?
Author Pells, professor of history emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin and author of War Babies: The Generation that Changed America, posits that “the war babies—not the generation of the Depression and World War II, or the baby boomers—produced the culture and the political attitudes we have all been living with ever since.”
He calls us “the champions of cultural and political renovation.”
But the youngest of us is now 76 years old; the oldest 83. Are we still capable of being politically and culturally “renovating”? It would seem so, with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro, Helen Mirren, Bob Woodward, Elena Ferrante, Joni Mitchell, Tom Brokaw, Anne Tyler, Michael Douglas, Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney and Joe Biden still going strong.
But wait! Perhaps the best is yet to come. A study published by a team of doctors and psychologists in the New England Journal of Medicine claims that if a person “leads a healthy lifestyle, moves, has a feasible physical activity and has full mental activity, intellectual abilities do not decrease with age, but only grow, reaching a peak by the age of 80–90 years.” What a relief to know this same study concludes that “absentmindedness and forgetfulness appear due to an overabundance of information.” It’s comforting to realize that when I find my car keys in the refrigerator and can’t remember where I left my cellphone it’s because my brain is otherwise engaged sorting through an overflow of knowledge.
In that case, it shouldn’t surprise me that at a drop of the hat I’m able to come up with the date of the first Nixon/Kennedy televised presidential debate. (9/26/1960). Or that I can remember song lyrics and recall the names of all my grade-school teachers. Jeopardy, anyone? Scrabble?
Harnessing the Wikipedia-sized storehouse of information I’m lugging around in my aging war baby brain shouldn’t be a problem, either. The director of the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences says that an older person’s brain is much more plastic than is commonly believed. Studies show that as we age, the amount of myelin, an insulating substance that forms around nerves, facilitates the rapid passage of signals between neurons and increases intellectual abilities. Active production of this substance crests between ages 60 and 80.
Accordingly, the interaction of the right and left hemispheres of the brain functions agreeably, expanding our creative possibilities. The peak of human intellectual activity occurs at about 70 years old, when the brain begins to work at full strength. As Ruth Gordon said on accepting her Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1969 at age 71: “I can't tell you how encouragin’ a thing like this is.”
But please note: While the neurons of the brain do not die off, connections between them simply disappear if a person does not engage in mental work. In other words, use it or lose it. We have to keep the marbles rolling to benefit from this encouraging brain science. To do that, we require proper sleep, a good diet, exercise and social involvement to maintain mental and physical health.
My own personal regimen also includes long dog walks, travel, a book club, preparing adventurous meals with my boyfriend and continuing to pursue twin professions that have always sustained me: acting and writing. So, what if I have to post notes on the fridge to remind myself of a dental appointment, or refer to virtual assisted technology when retrieving information from my chock-full brain takes too long. One can’t deal with everything.
The hallmarks of war babies — skepticism, distaste for conformity, individualism and enterprise — propel us to keep striving, and I’m all in. My takeaway? Buy those green bananas and plan that trip to the Galapagos. Learn French (finally!). Take piano lessons and make the perfect chocolate soufflé. Read, write, sing, dance, get yourself a ukulele — and stay involved.
We war babies still matter. And there’s still much we will do to change ourselves — and the world.