An Ode to the Greatest Generation by James D. Brewer
When someone broke into our car just north of Nashville that February morning in 2003, he had no idea of the value of what he took. He not only robbed us, but he also stole from an entire generation. I knew I had to find a way to return some of what was taken. Here’s how the song “The Greatest Generation’s Going Home” came about.
It was February of 2003, and my father-in-law, Milton Keith Caylor, had just passed away – only eighteen months after his wife, Virginia. We arranged to return to Tennessee where Milton, a marine during World War II, would be buried with military honors alongside his wife. In preparation for the viewing the night before the funeral, we collected many of the photos, medals, and other memorabilia from his time in the Marines. We planned to create a kiosk in his memory and display it.
Two days before the funeral, my wife and I were driving in separate cars from Elizabethtown, KY to Jackson, TN, when we stopped for a short lunch just north of Nashville. When we returned to our car, we found the passenger-side door lock punched out. Someone had broken into our car in broad daylight and taken only ONE item -- the briefcase in the floorboard containing many of the pictures, medals, uniform stripes, and life memories of Corporal Milton K. Caylor, USMC. My wife was devastated by this incident, and we immediately called the police.
“We see that a lot in this area,” the responding officer said. “It’s mostly people on drugs looking for something they can sell or pawn for quick cash.” He admitted that the chance of finding and recovering these precious items was slim. Saddened and feeling gut-punched, we drove off toward Jackson to complete the visitation and funeral preparations.
As I fought traffic and road construction along I-40 to the outskirts of west Nashville, I was not only bothered by the impact it was having on my wife, but also as a retired US Army officer myself, I was enraged that some low-life would steal the memorabilia of a man who had risked his life for his country. I knew I had to do something to help alleviate the situation, but I wasn’t sure what I could do that would matter. What could possibly replace what had been taken? I had been an amateur musician for most of my life, so as I continued along I-40, I began to conceive of some lyrics in my head. Could I maybe replace some of what was lost with a song at the funeral? I knew I didn’t have much time, yet doing nothing was not an option.
As I began to ponder the life of my father-in-law, a few lines started coming to mind. Picturing the advent of World War II, I imagined the thousands of American men and women who answered the clarion call for service. Many worked in factories and mills supplying the nation in war materials. Others worked the farms that fed a nation at war. Still more raised their children and kept the home fires burning.
They were young and free in ’33, and worked and saved and prayed
That depression times would lead to better days.
But with the sounds of guns in ’41 death and darkness came.
And they knew their lives would never be the same.
The lines kept coming, and since I couldn’t stop to jot them down, I just kept repeating them to memory. I thought of the hundreds of thousands who signed up in the armed services to defend the nation. I knew my father-in-law had grown up in Memphis, Tennessee. Like many World War II service members, he had been a Boy Scout, and as a young adult he was employed at an ironworks before the war. Raised in a lower-middle-class family, Milton’s father was a railroad worker who instilled in him a sense of hard work and duty that so characterized those of his generation. He was twenty-five years old when he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1943.
After training in Paris Island, SC, Milton traveled cross-country to await shipping out to the Pacific Theater. Like hundreds of other Marines, he passed through the famous Hollywood Canteen where popular entertainers and movie stars of the time hosted shows and greeted the men prior to their departure. After a few days of relaxation and somehow managing an autograph from Lucille Ball and other stars, he boarded a troop transport for the south Pacific.
Milton would spend much of his service on the island of Guam. Though I sometimes asked him about his experiences, he rarely spoke at length about his time at war. Only occasionally could I pry out of him a small anecdote, for those memories of combat still seemed painful to him years after the events.
When the call went out, they set about to try and save the world
And risked their lives where the Stars and Stripes unfurled.
From the desert campaigns to the pouring rains in some south Pacific squall
All gave some, but some just gave it all.
With the war ended and his enlistment over, he returned to west Tennessee where he met and married his wife, Virginia. In 1952 they adopted the beautiful, four-month-old baby girl that would eventually become my wife.
And when at last it came to pass the victory was won
They came back home where the work had just begun.
Without complaints or whines or protest signs for what they’d risked and lost
They rolled up their sleeves and counted not the cost.
Although I was making progress on my lyrics, as I crossed the winding Harpeth River, I began to realize that this song was about more than just Corporal Milton Caylor. I was composing not only the story of those who fought in the war, but also those who remained behind – all those who made this country great during and after the war. I thought of my own mother who had worked as a telephone operator through the war years and for some 30 years after. This generation had sacrificed and accomplished so much. And more words came to me.
They were laborers and salesmen and the moms that made our homes
And the operator’s voice on the telephone.
They cured polio and built our schools and wrote our favorite tunes.
Why, man, they even took us to the moon!
For over fifty years Milton and Virginia were good parents to my wife, supportive in-laws to me, and much-loved grandparents to our two daughters. Perhaps because of what he had experienced, Milton had some doubts when in 1977 I decided to become a career soldier; yet both he and Virginia fell-in formation and supported our lifestyle. For more than thirty years, my in-laws served as a bastion of stability for my wife and children amid duty station changes and missions that took me all over the US and sometimes out of the country.
Milton particularly enjoyed one aspect of visiting us at distant duty stations during the holidays.
“Are we going to the mess hall this year, Jimmy?” he would ask expectantly. Of course, our answer was always “yes.”
He loved going on-post for Thanksgiving or Christmas where food-service personnel competed to present the award-winning mess for soldiers unable to go home on leave. The old soldier in him liked the ornate food displays, the decorations, and the officers in dress uniform for the occasion.
They paid the bills and cured our ills and raised until till we’d grown
And helped us raise families of our own.
Through the challenges and the hard times, they’d seen in their own day
They tried to help and guide us on our way.
As I crossed the Tennessee River, I recalled something I had read about our nation losing 1,000 World War II veterans each day. An entire generation was evaporating before our eyes. The weight of that loss weighed on my mind as more words came to me.
Now with each day more slip away for they, too, must go on
To stand before their Maker on their own
Though we may cry when we say “good-bye” in our hearts we know
That the Greatest Generation is going home.
As soon as we reached Jackson, Tennessee, I took the opportunity to write down all I could remember since leaving Nashville. I contacted a boyhood friend and old “pickin’ buddy” of mine who still lived in town, and I borrowed a guitar from him. That night I began thumping out the tune to my lyrics, then I finished up the next morning until I had a passable song to share with the family at the funeral. But I had told no one about it. It was after visitation the night before the funeral that I approached my wife and asked if she would mind if I sang a song to honor her father and those of his generation. She agreed to it, and as I was finalizing the song the morning of the funeral I realized something was missing. After a few minutes of fiddling with possible endings, I knew I needed to challenge others to equal the sacrifice of those who had gone on before.
And one day at last it shall come to pass that we, too, must go on
To stand before our Maker on our own.
And on that day will our children say as we walk down that road
That the Greatest Generation has gone home?
I somehow managed to make it through the song at the funeral without tears of my own.
We left the funeral home and rode in the procession to the cemetery where a military honor guard awaited us. After some brief words from the minister, the VFW representatives rendered military honors and played “Taps.” I stood alongside my wife and family amid the sadness of those Milton had left behind. Yes, he was gone from us, but he was on a more important mission now, and as they played “Taps,” I snapped up a salute.
“It’s all right, Corporal Caylor,” I whispered. “I’ve got your six.”
James D. Brewer is a retired US Army officer, writer, musician and teacher who lives with his wife, Jan, in central Florida. A former professor at the US Military Academy and past editor of Armor magazine, he has over a forty-year writing career authored five novels, three non-fiction books, numerous magazine articles and a two-act play. The first book in Brewer’s newest three-volume Choctaw Parker Mystery/Adventure series, Blood on the Crossties: The Florida Chautauqua Murders, debuts from TouchPoint Press in February 2023. He continues to write and teach as an adjunct professor of English, and he and his wife frequently perform “The Greatest Generation’s Going Home” at Memorial and Veterans Day activities.
To hear the song, "The Greatest Generation's Going Home" recorded by the High Road Ramblers please go to the full version in February's issue of WELL READ.