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Forget those black balloons

"There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny."

_ Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 27, 1936, delivering his acceptance speech to the Democratic convention in Philadelphia

The babies of 1936 turn 60 years old this year. They are one of the smallest groups of Americans born in recent history, part of a generation whose parents were living through the Depression and watching the winds of war gather in Europe, Africa and Asia.

It was the year Roosevelt won his second term in office, promising to break the "economic slavery" of "economic royalists." Roosevelt wasn't directly speaking of the babies who were born in 1936 when he talked of destiny in his acceptance speech. But in many ways it applies to them and others born in those pre-war years.

Their lives and attitudes were shaped by unimaginable innovations and unthinkable horrors: computers, television, space travel, World War II, the atomic bombs, the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Children and grandchildren of immigrants, parents of the last wave of baby boomers and the first of the Generation X, they approach retirement and old age at a time when those words mean so many things. Many are healthier than any 60-year-olds who came before them, benefiting from vaccinations, better nutrition and exercise.

Some face retirement with tidy nest eggs they fear won't be enough to last the 20 or 30 years many of them will live. Other are working or starting new businesses.

They also were among the first groups to face downsizing and the first to find themselves caring for their own aging parents, who are now in their 80s or 90s.

Is turning 60 a cause for celebration or trepidation?

"Usually when you turn 60, they give you black balloons and hang black crepe paper," says Jim Patterson, who turns 60 in October. "Why should it be that way?"

Patterson is part of a group of friends who recently got together to celebrate turning 60. Amazingly, many of them have known each other for more than 20 years, since they got together as part of a group for newcomers in the Largo-Seminole area.

They have remained friends and still get together regularly. Not long ago, they noticed 11 members of their informal group were turning 60 this year.

Instead of letting that milestone arrive with bad jokes about old age, they got together for a Class of '36 Depression Dinner.

How does it feel to turn 60? "What can you do about it?" asks Shirley Barris of Largo, who turned 60 in May. "Anyway, I don't feel 60."

That seemed to be the attitude at the party. "I don't think about it," says Ken Bagot, a Class of '36 member who hosted the Depression Dinner at his St. Petersburg home.

Although they come from diverse backgrounds and different regions, the 11 members of the Class of '36 share some common memories.

Most say they have only limited memories of the Depression. By 1936, some of the worst of the economic problems were easing, as New Deal programs took hold. They saw how it affected their parents, like John Mevers of Seminole, who said he father spoke about the bank holiday in March 1933, which kicked off the sweeping New Deal changes of Roosevelt's first 100 days in office.

Others recalled that their parents, who lived through the entire Depression, were more cautious about money their whole lives, and instilled some of that in them.

In many ways, the defining moment for the Class of '36 as children was World War II. They remember the announcement of Pearl Harbor, the blackouts and the wail of air raid sirens, the maps in classrooms with pins to mark where relatives were serving, the families who lost members, the happiness of VE and VJ days.

"I remember Dad crying when the war was over," says Betty Patterson, Jim's wife and another member of the Class of '36. "I remember the houses with gold stars hanging in the window," which meant a family member had died in service.

World War II had enormous impact on America, too. Besides helping put the Depression behind us, it exposed people to new places and ideas.

"As millions of people left the familiarity of home for the first time, old values and taboos were forgotten," writes historian Paul D. Casdorph in his book, Let the Good Times Roll: Life at Home in America During WWII, ". . . the new lifestyles that emerged from a dislocated population were financed by a sudden avalanche of defense spending that reached every corner of the country."

The Class of '36 came out of the war years heading into adolescence. Like other Americans, some families moved from small towns to bigger towns or from cities to the growing suburbs.

Later in their lives, when they were in their 30s with small children of their own, the members of the Class of '36 would move again. Most came to Florida, in search of sunshine or new business opportunities. Some had parents or other relatives who were among the first waves of retirees to move to Florida.

They moved to the Largo-Seminole area because "the schools were newer and considered good," says Ann Mevers of Seminole, who turned 60 in June. "This is where the new housing was."

They met in a newcomers club and have remained friends through the years. At first, they socialized as families, but now, with children grown and gone, mostly couples meet.

How did they stay in touch and remain friends? "It was the women more than the men," says Mrs. Mevers.

They are looking forward to remaining friends. And that could be a long time. If statistics hold true, they could have another 25 years together.

But for now, they say they will enjoy turning 60. No black balloons, just good memories and hopes for the future.

"What should I be depressed about?" asks Mrs. Wendt. That's because besides turning 60 this year, she marked her five-year survival anniversary from a fight with cancer. "That puts everything in perspective."

The Class of '36 comes of age

Among a group of folks 60 years old, memories of tough times in youth share a place with plans for fulfilling retirements.

The 11 members of the "Class of '36" filled out questionnaires about their family histories, their memories and their hopes for the future.

Here are some excerpts:

Fred Annand of Largo. Born in Vernon, British Columbia, on April 2: World War II blackouts . . . Parents moved to California in late 1945 after WWII . . . Dad rode a horse to work. . . .

What anticipation (or worries) do you have for your retirement years? Having sufficient retirement funds so that we are not a burden to our children or society, and we can do what we want, when we want to at or near our current standard of living . . . it has been a great 60 years.

Ken Bagot of St. Petersburg. Born in Princeton, N.J., on Aug. 9: We were better off financially during the Depression than any other time. For some strange reason, the (family's) rug business was not adversely affected during those hard times . . . I do tend to hoard stuff, but not sure it came from the Depression. . . .

What anticipation (or worries) do you have for your retirement years? Having enough $$ to live well. We have enough material things, but trips, vacations, etc. will be important to us, so I hope we can afford them. We should be okay. . . . It has been a good ride. Hope to continue.

Shirley A. Barris of Largo. Born in Buffalo, N.Y., on May 9: (During Depression) very little entertainment but family gatherings . . . ate peculiar food that was left over from slaughterhouse. What was the impact of Depression years? Frugal on some things, extravagant on others . . .

What anticipation (or worries) do you have for your retirement years? Keeping active and enjoying.

Jim Geiger of Largo. Born in Illinois on Aug. 26: (During Depression) parents lived well on farm; however, they had or spent very little money and maybe that is just a German trait. I consider myself conservative rather than cheap . . . I remember the old radio and the day the war started . . . I always wanted to be a chemist. I retired at 54. Corporate downsizing never was a problem. . . .

What anticipation (or worries) do you have for your retirement years? Need to stay in good health.

Ann Mevers of Seminole. Born in Tappan, N.Y., on June 7: I got married one week after graduation (from college). I worked as a receptionist at blood bank in Gainesville while (husband) Jack finished school. At age 51 went to work part-time at Bay Area Sewing and four years later bought the store. In one year's time, expanded . . . I hope to retire in 2-4 years (maybe semi-retire) . . . Hope to have a second home in N.C.

John Mevers of Seminole (husband of Ann). Born in Miami on Sept. 3: Engineer with General Electric for 32 years and 6 months with Martin Marietta. Took early retirement in 1992 when bombs became passe . . . am currently enjoying retirement . . . worry about future of the country and what kind of place will it be for my kids and grandkids; direction of government; inflation and safety of investments _ my pension won't ever increase . . . basically Ann and I were very fortunate in our past 60 years. Both our parents were moderately successful, and we enjoyed a good childhood. I (was) moderately successful with G.E., and our children enjoyed (I think) a good childhood. Now it's time for us to enjoy "the fruits of our labors."

Jan Murray of Largo. Born in Minneapolis on April 29: Even in later years when money was not a problem, my mother always dickered price and I find I have the same trait, although she would think I was very extravagant . . . World War II _ I clearly remember saving scraps of foil and rolling it into a ball, saving coupons for sugar, gasoline and meat. We had a victory garden and my mother canned everything . . . A vivid memory is when my father was drafted. The day of his physical was tense but when he walked in the door he swooped my mother up in his arms and announced he was 4F because of high blood pressure. The picture of Mom sitting on Dad's lap and both of them crying is etched permanently in my memory. . . .

What anticipation (or worries) do you have for your retirement years? Retirement is a scary area for me right now, not only financially but mentally. I'm not sure how I will cope with so much time on my hands . . . my concern regarding retirement years is that Bill and I stay healthy enough to care for each other and not be a burden for our children.

Betty Patterson of Largo. Born in Hallock, Minn., on June 18: In our early years, most remember cooking on wood stoves. Outhouses furnished Wards and Sears catalogs as T.P. (toilet paper) . . . the war years are sketchy _ I remember ration books, a poster saying "Uncle Sams Wants YOU," Dad crying when Roosevelt died, putting pins in a school map on location where relatives served . . . I know my parents suffered much more than I in the early years of few conveniences, but I'm glad now that I saw how hard life was _ can't say I enjoyed carrying water from the town pump upstairs to our kitchen or hurrying in the unheated bathroom, but it made for a varied life.

Jim Patterson of Largo (husband of Betty). Born in Clarksburg, W.V., on Oct. 28: Thriftiness and jobs were watchwords at my earliest memory . . . I've always been conservative about going into debt, perhaps missing some investment chances in earlier years to really make big money. Depression instilled pretty strong saving ethic. But my family was more transformed by WWII than the Depression . . . Mom and I were visiting a Mississippi cousin in Cincinnati on VE Day, and I recall throwing all the toilet paper rolls from the maid's closet out the Netherlands Plaza hotel into Fountain Square . .T. We're the kids who listened to the radio and saw the pictures in our imagination, yet we also were the first kids exposed to commercial television.

Dinny Siersema of Largo. Born in Lynchburg, Va., on May 30. Memories from childhood: Milk delivered to our front door in glass bottles in which, on freezing days, the cream froze, rose to the top and popped off the cap . . . lilacs in springtime. Iris and daffodils. Sound of hand-pushed lawnmowers. Smell of boxwood. Picket fences. Church picnics. Acorns dropped on wooden floors. Church every Sunday and chicken every Sunday! . . . Father's Day picnics at "Pa-Pa's" farm (my father's father). We came from the "city" and Dad always took ice cream squares packed in dry ice _ vanilla, strawberry and chocolate.

Solly Wendt of Largo. Born in Eureka, S.D., on Feb. 6: I remember hints of financial difficulty, but I remember a happy family (during the Depression) . . . attending a rural one-room school serving grades 1-8. . . .

What anticipation (or worries) do you have for your retirement years? Looking forward to retirement. I plan to do whatever I do leisurely. Hope to do more golfing year round. Probably volunteer with American Cancer Society . . . I anticipate seeing more of my grandchildren . . . My only worry is personal health.