- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2002

Tom Brokaw was the guy who fingered us. "The greatest generation," the TV commentator said, and the description stuck at a time when much of the world was ruminating about leadership and role models, or good examples, as they used to be called.
We were the men and women, hallmarked by duty and honor, who served and sacrificed without a whimper during World War II.
But how did we get that way? Some fusty mementos of that bygone era of the mid-'30s give a hint of the forces that shaped us.
These resurrected scraps of social history reveal an age of heroes and kids eons away from their modern counterparts.
The Great Depression was on. The slumped economy, like a constrictive cape, enveloped all ages. Yet children found a vent in the cape. With a box top and a 3 cent stamp in hand, they were equipped for the pursuit of a famous idol.
Preteens of the time did not take their heroes lightly. They pledged trust and faith in them. In return, the revered stars laid out rules for righteous living. Whenever an opportunity arose, they admonished their young pals to toe the line.
These voices of authority spoke through booklets and pamphlets yours for a boxtop, no money needed. Slipped in among greetings and pointers on clean living was the inevitable pitch for the sponsoring product. Often included, too, was a catalog of nifty prizes that more box tops might bring.
One surviving pamphlet has a jubilant baseball star on the cover above a pennant urging, "Win With Dizzy Dean." It came with a pin in the shape of a bat and ball that declared the wearer to be a member of the Dizzy Dean Winners.
Dean, of course, was Old Diz, who left the cotton fields of Arkansas and Oklahoma to become the legendary pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs.
Dean hoped to prepare his young fans for sports, school and life, he said, when he offered them "some inside tips."
Among his nuggets of wisdom are: Pick the position you want to play and then learn all there is about doing it well. Be willing to tackle anything, no matter how tough. Don't expect to make good the first time out, and when you get to be pretty good, watch your step.
Under his tip that "Rules are rules obey them," he humbly tells what happened to him the prior season when he failed to show up for an exhibition game.
"They slapped a $486 fine on me and suspended me without pay for two weeks," he said. "That might have cost the Cards the pennant and kept us out of the World's Series, which meant $5,733 to me and every other fellow on the team." That season, Dean pitched 37 games and won 30 of them.
He was a poster boy for Grape Nuts cereal and promoted them as a world-beater for energy. Copious consumption of the cereal could generate enough box tops to acquire gifts for every taste. An "indestructible pearl necklace" 16 inches long with graduated beads and safety clap required three tops.
In those more benign times, a "two-blade pocket knife regularly sold at retail for $.50" was free for seven Grape Nut tops.
Among other prizes were an autographed picture of Diz, a Daisy water pistol, a finger print set and an automatic pencil "made of unbreakable pyralin. Propel-repel action." (Automatic pencils were hot items in those days not so much for the receiver but for the giver.)
Mailing instructions for boys and girls who were probably 10 to 13 years old echoed the hard times that had seized the nation. Every stamp counted:
"You can send six package tops or less for 3 cents, from 7 to 13 package tops for 6 cents, from 14 to 20 package tops for 9 cents. When sending a large number of package tops, you can save postage by sending them by third-class mail (in an unsealed package.) Third-class mail travels slowly, so it will take longer to receive tops and fill orders."
Tom Mix was another guru to the children of the 1930s whose major recreation was huddling in the corner, an ear to the console radio in hopes of finding thrills and excitement. And who was Tom Mix? He was the handsome cowboy with a handsome horse named Tony. They were a matched pair.
Tom Mix headed the Ralston Straight Shooters. His Ralston Cereal Straight Shooter's Manual tells us why: "He knows that America needs Straight Shooters fearless, healthy, sturdy citizens to keep our country strong and honest and glorious."
Clearly, the message strayed in intervening decades.Tom's Straight shooters were a world away from the hoodlums of more recent years who have found fun in mowing down classmates.
The Ralston mob promised to shootstraight with parents and friends and especially with one's self. The latter required one to keep his mind keen and alert and his body strong and healthy. One way of doing this was to eat three bowls of Ralston every week.
In the manual that came along with membership, a true believer could find neat stuff. Directions for making a horseshoe nail ring are precise. They start out "Use a poker or a small iron bar as an anvil."
A whole lifestyle is available on the next few pages. After you had your mother sew on a membership patch (long lost), you could immerse yourself in a confidential code, salute, grip and password. Any remaining time and energy could be siphoned off by the study of two pages of Western words and phrases.
All these gimmicks were secondary to the page with the diagram. The diagram was a treasury of Tom's injuries, including 12 gunshot wounds. These were notched during a lifetime of derring-do.
He fought in the Spanish-American War and in China during the Boxer Rebellion before being a stunt man in numerous movies. Forunknown reasons, the diagram fails to mark 22 knife wounds.
Another popular figure in the 1930s was of a different ilk. He was Skippy Skinner, grand exalted president of Skippy's Secret Service Society.
Skippy, himself a puckish kid, was a character in the eponymous comic strip created by Percy Crosby in 1923.
He was easily recognized by his relaxed checkered hat, tilted rakishly forward, a fat tie, wide collar, drooping socks, and hands deep in his pockets. In 1931, Jackie Cooper starred in a movie version of Skippy.
Only heirs of Phillips toothpaste might know why Skippy was selected to head the club. One guess is that he was viewed by some as a "maturely philosophic and yet boyishly mischievous," according to Jerry Robinson, a historian of the comics.
Skippy's requirements for his members loosely followed those of Diz and Tom. First, however, members had to solemnly promise to wear the Skippy Mystic cap at least an hour a day and always while on Mystic Circle business.
Caps in place, disciples promised "always to keep my word, to tell no lies to anyone at any time, to keep my promises, hurt no animals, hurt no one if I can help it, protect people who are smaller than I am" and practice the Golden Rule.
Next the youngsters were exhorted to obey their parents because they "know better what is right and what is wrong and to always use Skippy's own toothpaste Phillips' Toothpaste."
There were other famous personalities who exacted pledges and promises. Radio Orphan Annie had a secret society, Babe Ruth had a baseball club, Captain Tim promoted a stamp club, and Roscoe Turner had his Flying Corps. All espoused lives of virtue for their young friends.
Who knows the cumulative effect of the straight and narrow philosophy of Dizzy Dean, Tom Mix, Skippy and the rest. There are some who think it resulted in a near-perfect generation. While we are bowing, will someone in the angel's roost sound the tantara?

Mary Jane Dempsey Keller is a free-lance writer living in Bethesda Md. For many years, she was a reporter for the Washington Times-Herald.

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