Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Sprint Cup [Print without images]

Thursday, May 17, 2012
The Greatest Generation and The Six

By Marty Smith
ESPN.com

My generation is generally self-absorbed.

When faced with adversity we tend to ask "Why me?" rather than "What now?" Our priority scale is screwy. It is me-first. The sad part is few of us even realize it until we pause long enough to chat with someone who has endured true strife.

Or until we engage in conversation with a member of the Greatest Generation.

Some folks never get the opportunity to experience that banter with their own grandparents. I did. But for most of my life I was too selfish to take the moment to ask. And until we ask they aren't apt to openly share.

Door-To-Door
with Marty Smith
Do you have a question for ESPN NASCAR analyst Marty Smith? Go to Smith's SportsNation page to submit your question or comment for Marty, and check back regularly for the column in which he will provide the answers.
Ask Marty

They're extremely proud but far from boastful.

Once I woke up to the realization that this rarest of resources was readily at my disposal, I got an education that made me disgusted and ashamed about the frivolity of our collective approach to this world, especially that which I consider "difficult." Our grandparents and their peers have seen and done more of substance than we ever will.

We'll see new cell phone technology every 10 minutes. But they saved this land. All of them.

While our men and women in uniform are sacrificing their lives over in the Middle East sandbox right now defending our freedom, we thank them sporadically for their service as we ease flippantly through our daily lives. We know they're there. We watch it on the news and we appreciate it.

But unless we have blood or brotherhood there, we don't think about it every waking moment of every day. (That's why I try so hard to thank them at every opportunity. I want them to know that, while I don't have true context of their sacrifice, I damn-sure appreciate it.)

The Greatest Generation did think about it every waking moment. They had to. Because 70 years ago when our grandfathers were shipped off to World War II, our grandmothers inherited their jobs in the factories and fields in order to ensure the American wheel kept turning. They all sacrificed.

And they won. Thank God they won.

My granny, Eunice Martin Smith, just died. She was six weeks shy of 98 years old, a child of the Great Depression who, without a word, showed my sister and me what work looks like. She didn't need much.

She was simple; tougher than Ajax. She was tough-love, not the give-me-a-hug-I-love-you type. But in a world like this one -- one that yearns desperately for show-me-don't-tell-me but yet is quick to tell me first -- she showed me. Always.

Farmers
When American men to war, American women took their jobs ... and raised families.

She taught typing and business to nearly 3,000 students over nearly 40 years. And as I wrote in her obituary -- she was all business, a dynamite bundle of no-nonsense common sense. She once fell out of an apple tree and nearly killed herself. But she fought back, undeterred. She could defend herself, too. She didn't need a man to show her the way. Her way was the only way.

I've known that since she had my sister, Stacy, and me in a hayfield as kids. We were too small to throw hay, so we instead fetched rocks and tossed them into an old rickety basket so the rake and the bailer didn't get bound up or dinged up during the bailing process.

We got a deeper lesson later on as teenagers, out in the middle of nowhere on a mountain in the sweltering summer heat sanding and painting gates her daddy made himself at the turn of the century. We wondered why she didn't just buy new gates. Simple: The Great Depression is why she didn't buy new gates.

She saved her pennies and implored us to do the same. She wore an old raggedy hat, holey shorts and shoes and used recycled old Coke and Sprite bottles as bird feeders and water troughs. She always had bloody gashes on her arms from various run-ins with barbed wire and ornery cattle.

She drove over the mountain to that farm every single day well into her 93rd year, until the Commonwealth decided she shouldn't drive anymore. Most folks in the area wondered how she drove in the first place.

She wasn't tall enough to see over the steering wheel in that trademark early '80s sky-blue-bodied, white-topped Chevrolet Silverado that was dented and rusted and creaky. So she looked through the wheel, nothing visible to passersby but the very top of her soiled farm hat. Riding with her in that thing was always an adventure.

The townsfolk steered clear, more out of respect than fear. I think.

Her impact on that community became much clearer to Stacy and me as we stood in the receiving line alongside her casket. As former students flooded into the funeral home the stories got richer and richer -- and invariably included a quip about that old blue truck easing through town on its own terms.

Several folks used the word icon to describe her and my grandfather. Together they launched careers and offered hope.

What a fantastic legacy.

She lost her husband in 1978. She lost her son in 2008.

And she trudged on … never once asking, "Why me?"

Marty,

"Athletes Die Twice" was the best piece of sports writing I've ever read. My jaw dropped when I read what those guys said. I learned so much. Did you learn a lot?

-- J. Bailey, Peekskill, NY

I did learn a lot. And I'm still taken aback by the honesty.

Mark Schlereth
Mark Schlereth was frank about what his life was like when his playing days were over.

These days brutal honesty is extremely rare. Rather than tell the truth, folks hedge for fear of the inevitable repercussions that accompany it. None of the seven gentlemen I interviewed for that piece hedged one iota. They made themselves vulnerable.

Along those lines, Mark Schlereth said something to me that didn't make the story, but was extremely poignant and thus probably should have. He said many former athletes are haunted by the emotional attachment to the unification fostered by competition.

"As guys we struggle with that vulnerability anyway," Schlereth said. "With all the false bravado that's out there, that's as vulnerable as you'll ever be. And it gets ripped out from underneath you and suddenly you're a pariah."

In my opinion, the willingness to be vulnerable is a rare but key factor in achieving excellence. It's a difficult choice to put yourself out there. But those who do stand out -- every one of them. If you can be vulnerable, you'll reach a man's soul.

Marty,

What's your take on Danica Patrick at Darlington? I'm not going to lie, I haven't been her biggest supporter. But I was amazed. What did you think?

-- Jeff Turner, Saginaw, Mich.

I was thoroughly impressed, Jeff. And I'm not alone. I sat down this week with Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch to conduct a lengthy interview about them and their relationship for "ESPN NASCAR Countdown," and before the camera rolled we discussed this very topic.

Trust me, they're both as impressed as we are and, of course, have much greater context and schooling on the matter.

They noticed her during the race. For the right reasons.

That tells me a lot.

SONG OF THE WEEK: "Hurt," by Johnny Cash. If I didn't know Nine Inch Nails' front man Trent Reznor wrote this song, I'd never dreamed it was a cover. The passion and the conviction with which Cash delivers the message demands that you absorb it. And when you absorb it, it is piercing.

I hurt myself today …
To see if I still feel …
I focus on the pain …
The only thing that's real …

So heavy.

Marty,

I respect your opinion on racing -- very rarely do I find your logic flawed and your passion for racing shines through. You are right about why NASCAR left The Rock, but tell me something, going after Hollywood and New York (largest media markets), has it worked?

I would argue no, Fontana can barely support one race, and since the banquet moved out of New York it's much more fun and entertaining and it seems like the drivers like it more. With the age of instant media is it really needed to be in those markets?

Rich Maletto, Hometown unknown

To a degree, I agree with you, Rich. NASCAR didn't purposefully forget who it was. Brian France didn't sit in a board room and say, "Let's alienate the folks that built this thing." But the sanctioning body was na´ve about the fallout of its approach. Folks don't appreciate being made to feel forgotten, as some old-school fans do.

North Carolina Speedway
North Carolina Speedway, aka Rockingham, was just one of the tracks left behind as NASCAR sought new markets.

It was a dollars-and-cents thing. I never disparage any person or entity for wanting to grow, improve and expand. Especially a business. That's its reason for being: to be as successful as possible. But in the process of growing, it is imperative to remain focused on your core demographic.

That's where the dichotomy happened: The fact is North Carolina Speedway wasn't selling enough tickets in 2004, and NASCAR saw an opportunity in Fontana where the track was selling well. In 2003, the last year California Speedway had just one race until 2011 -- the officially ticket tally was 120,000 sold.

And maybe it's just me, but we didn't fully respect what we had in Rockingham until it was gone and replaced with the Fontana Parade.

I understand the need to sell tickets. It's the core business for the track owners. (Why else would Bruton Smith change Bristol?) But we need to be sure to take the product to the people that care about it and support it. And we need to figure out a way to make it affordable for that group in very short order.

NASCAR is trying. I give it credit for that. It realized its mistakes and is working to get back to what made NASCAR special. Here's hoping that trend continues and is successful.

That's my time, Team. Thank you for yours. And thank you for being NASCAR fans.

If you see an elderly gentleman wearing a World War II Veteran cap, go say thank you. You'll learn something.