COCONUT CREEK, Fla., March 21 -- Long, long ago -- or maybe, then again, it wasn't that long ago -- they bought war bonds and sang patriotic songs. They lost their brothers on frozen fields in Belgium, their cousins in the sweltering heat of the South Pacific.
But, never -- not for a second -- did they doubt.
The generation that vanquished Hitler with such unassailable gusto now plays mah-jongg and swims slow-motion laps here in this affectionately nicknamed "Wrinkle City" and others like it across the country. But many have grown weary of war as they have aged, fearing that their children and grandchildren will be left to a world of never-ending, irresolvable conflict. A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken in the weeks leading up to the war showed slightly more than half of Americans 65 and older opposed attacking Iraq. Conversations here over the past two days showed that opposition has not wavered since bombs have begun to fall on Iraq, even as many expressed support and concern for the troops.
"I don't want to see anybody go through what I went through," Edith Cohen said as she grabbed a quick lunch before heading off to the big mah-jongg tournament at Wynmoor Village, a sprawling retirement complex here with 9,000 residents. "I would go out and picket if I wasn't 81 years old. I'd scream, chant."
Cohen lost two brothers-in-law, two "wonderful boys" ages 20 and 24, in World War II. Now she worries about the parents and spouses waiting at home while another generation slips into combat gear.
Cohen's contemporaries have been a surprisingly vocal and visible force in the antiwar movement, whose leaders have sometimes been frustrated by low turnout among young people. Gray hair and walkers have become permanent fixtures in demonstrations against the war in Iraq.
Peg McIntire, 92, of St. Augustine in northern Florida, founded a group called "Grandmothers for Peace" 12 years ago with a blunt siren call:
"Get out of the kitchen, grandma; get out there and protest."
"We've experienced war," McIntire said this week during a break from a strategy session for her latest demonstration. "We know what war is -- we know it's not the answer."
Things were much clearer, of course, in another era. The goals and the enemy were more neatly defined, more easily articulated.
Leo P. Linkow, 83, a retired insurance agent who moved to Wynmoor from New Jersey, fought the Nazis in the Battle of the Bulge, figuring "one war was enough for me." Now he wonders about the Bush administration's motivations, whether the bombing of Baghdad is little more than a grab at Iraq's oil. But, even with his doubts, he thinks the administration is doing the right thing.
"Unfortunately, there comes a time when you have to go to war -- you're ridding the world of a tyrant," he said, lingering over lunch because his usual golf game is on hold after cataract surgery.
For years, all the tyrants, all the dangers, seemed remote to many here, flickers on television screens. Behind the long, sturdy security fence of Wynmoor, it was once hard to imagine anything bad happening. It was inconceivable that trouble could penetrate this place sometimes called "Camp Wynmoor," with its ceramics classes, its chair yoga sessions, its perpetual bingo schedule.
But, in the past years many have felt their sense of security slip away. Gertrude Weinberg, a buoyant 86-year-old who still wows crowds with her high-kicking dance recitals, lay awake one night this week calculating the possibilities. There was the water system that could be contaminated, bombs that could be dropped. Maybe someone evil would figure out that this place she has called home for 27 years has a high percentage of Jewish residents and target it for that reason.
"I'm distraught over the whole thing," she said.
She is not fretting about doomsday scenarios alone. Her friend Gloria Fantl, a Wynmoor resident who is a city commissioner in Coconut Creek, was asked recently to persuade the city to buy gas masks for everyone in town -- 45,000 gas masks. No way could the city afford such a grand gesture, Fantl said, but the mere fact that someone made such a request said a lot.
Fantl's and Weinberg's friends are canceling cruises and European vacations. Some worry that their children back in Jersey or Michigan or Chicago will get spooked about hijackings and refuse to fly down for visits as often. A certain sense of isolation, or the fear of it, is seeping in, ever so slowly for some.
But that has not altered the routines here. Weinberg, the self-appointed "mayor of Wynmoor," is still tugging ladies over to the table in the 19th Hole Coffee Shop, where she holds court, a few paces away from a sign advertising "Freedom Fries."
"How're your new knees?" she calls out.
"New knees?" a friend calls back. "I got the new hips."
Weinberg chuckles. On the silent television set behind her, bombs are exploding in Baghdad. She would rather talk about her brother-in-law, Henry Gerner, and the last thing he said to her before dying four years ago: "It's a troubled world, but an interesting one, and I hate like hell to leave it."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company