When I was about to graduate from college, I was puffed up in a bubble of self-importance. I know this because my uncle came along and popped it.
We were at some family gathering when he appeared at my elbow to ask out of the corner of his mouth, in the Jersey City accent of his youth, if I thought the Westneat family was “special.”
I don’t remember what I said, but I’m a child of the ’70s, era of Free to Be, You and Me. Everyone was special, right?
“We aren’t, we’re mediocre,” he said. “Maybe we’ve done some things, but they weren’t important things. We’re more mediocre than we think we are. Don’t forget that.”
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Holy commencement address! My uncle walked off and probably thought nothing of it. But I was electrified. When you’re that age you just want someone to say anything to you that’s not a cliché. But also I was a little put out. Who was this geezer to call me mediocre?
I think of him every year around this time, as graduation speakers struggle for fresh ways to tell students: “time to grow up!” I’ve heard and read a lot of these sentiments. Nobody has dared to do it as short and sour as my Uncle Art.
Last week Art died, after hitting his head. He was 92. He was the last member of the greatest generation in my family, and also the last of that group that I knew well. The folks who survived the Depression and won the war are almost gone from us.
But what did he mean when he said don’t forget we’re mediocre?
My uncle was born in 1921 and grew up the son of a minister in, as he called it, the “Jersey slums” across the Hudson from New York.
“My father was out of work for seven years, we were often fed by charity, and on bread lines,” he wrote. “It was a mind numbing time, a destroyer of ambition. But apparently not for me, I had caught a glimpse of magic.”
That was a ham radio he got when he was 13. Suddenly he realized he could “reach out across space.” He went on to talk to people in nearly every country of the world — which for a boy dreaming in his basement during the Depression is as close to magical as real life ever gets.
It led him to become an electrical engineer, to do wartime work on sonar at the Navy Underwater Sound Laboratory and later to invent a series of unmanned underwater vehicles. He still holds invention patents (I found one on the Internet for his “frequency modulated crystal oscillator,” circa 1962.)
Obviously he wasn’t mediocre. So what had he been talking about?
It took 25 years and having my own kids to figure it out. Now when I watch them play music recitals or hit triples I think: You’re already better than me. Just keep going. Uncle Art wasn’t saying we’re consigned to being average. He was telling me: “Be better than we were.” Oh, and don’t be so inflated about it.
This to me is the greatest gift of the greatest generation. They nearly starved to death, then saved the world and built modern America. But for all that they didn’t think they were special. In fact they assumed they wouldn’t be as good as what came next.
Have we lost that fundamental sense of promise?
My uncle was both stubborn and a do-it-yourselfer, like a lot of Depression kids. When computers took off in the 1980s, he made his own from scratch. So it was no surprise he refused any medical help. When he lost consciousness last week, it wasn’t long before he died, his way.
I haven’t forgotten what you said to me, Uncle Art. I don’t always live up to it. But I haven’t forgotten.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org