I was born on this day in 1940, the same year as Tom Brokaw, Nancy Sinatra, Al Pacino, Raquel Welch and Don Imus.
Shortly after my birth, this country became embroiled in a world war, which had been raging for several years in Europe since the Germans decided to conquer the world and annihilate several segments of the population in the process. The U.S. of my early childhood was obsessed with that war, as our men had been drafted to fight, and everything from the entertainment industry to small businesses were involved in the propaganda machine. This thinking was to pervade my generation for over 20 years; for, after World War II ended in a victory for our side, our leaders told us that Russia was now our enemy, and that the Russians were planning another, more horrible war, directly against us, and would involve weaponry far more devastating than that which had been used in the past.
This period of national paranoia was called a “Cold War.” Little children in big city schools were drilled to hide under their desks in mock air raids, as if this would be helpful for them to do if and when the Russians dropped big bombs in the neighborhood. Of course, because they were little kids all it did was imbue them with a fear of early and painful death--and the sneaking suspicion that there were no grownups around who could do anything about it. It was not a good time to grow up.
The generation that came of age just after I did is known as the “Baby Boom” generation, referring to the tremendous swell in the number of babies conceived when the men came home from the war. They, and we who came just before them, were taught a number of traumatic things by well-meaning but uninformed adults. One thing we knew for a fact as children was that the world contained weapons of mass destruction which might be used against us at any moment.
World War II had brought us prosperity, as wars do, and uneasiness, as well they might. As teenagers, we felt safe with our great General–Dwight David Eisenhower–as president of our country, but to me he seemed a distant, dull old man, and I was glad to see the vigorous young John F. Kennedy with his beautiful wife and family as the next residents of the White House. I was too young to vote in the 1960 presidential election, but I will never forget the feeling of exhilaration at the youthful president. His empowering initiatives such as the Peace Corps brought fresh thinking into politics and therefore into the whole country. I later came to feel we had been a bit too gullible, because I became disenchanted with John Kennedy after his death, after more was known about him. Later presidents in my lifetime have brought outright disgrace to the White House and Kennedy is looking good again. However, with all his good intentions and many brilliant programs and ideas, he did not have long enough in his presidency to see if he really was up to the whole job or not, but he was good at selecting lieutenants and he was smart enough to get a few valuable programs started.
The brevity of human life is in itself a time capsule. I remember all the way back to blackouts, rationing, and everybody’s daddy being away while the women were left to tend the children and fend for themselves. We listened to the radio for shows with stories and humor and running characters, such as The Great Gildersleeve (an actor named Harold Peary with a distinctive, long, low laugh) tearjerker soap operas like Stella Dallas and One Man’s Family and adventures like The Green Hornet, Gangbusters, and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. In the afternoon there were shows for kids. I remember ordering a signet ring from Sky King, which promised a compartment for secret messages. Weeks later I was thrilled to receive the object in the mail, although I had no one to send secret messages to or no idea why there would messages in my ring.
People my age remember the 50’s vividly. When we think of Audrey Hepburn we think of the gamin in Roman Holiday and Sabrina more than the city sophisticate of a later film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. As teenagers we wore dungarees or circle skirts (but wouldn’t have been caught dead in one with a poodle on it); we danced the jitterbug at soda shops, we went to movies after school and dances at the Elks Club every Friday night. Our parents didn’t make play dates for us; we lived at each others' houses almost as much as our own, and we explored the streets and neighboring woods without supervision.
I remember when Elvis wasn’t “the King” of anything. He was a hillbilly singer and your mama wouldn’t have let you go out the door with him or anyone remotely like him if he showed up for a date. Okay, he was a few years older than I, and was indeed making tours of my home area in those days, but his brand of rock and roll had not yet caught on with the middle class. He caused quite a buzz, and I swear this is the truth: The father of one of my high school girlfriends played in an amateur dance band and told us with vehement authority, “Elvis Presley is just a flash in the pan. Mark my words, a year from now none of you will even remember who Elvis Presley was!”
Before moving from Atlanta to New York City in 1964 I had to pick up some things at a little corner "gas and go" type grocery in the part of the city known as Decatur. I was struck by a boy in the store, a nice, middle-class-looking kid about 12 years old with brown hair cut below his ears. The reason I took note of him was that his hair was long compared to all the other boys his age. I remember being somewhat amused that there was actually a kid in this neighborhood in Atlanta with the guts to wear a haircut inspired by the Beatles, that happy group of English guys whose picture was on every magazine cover that month. They had not yet landed in America, but here was someone who was already making a statement in this outpost in the South, by copying them. I never would have believed the impact that haircut was to have on the world, even Atlanta. Elvis was pretty well known by then, but even yet he was not a fashion role model.
Most children of the late 60’s were raised by affluent parents, indulged with all their families could give them–perhaps as overcompensation for their own deprivation in the Great Depression. People my age had education and ideas, but our demographic lacked the numbers to be particularly effective in carrying these ideas out. Sheer critical mass of those Boomers would overwhelm whatever (or whoever) got in their way.
Popular music of my day was a pale imitation of that of our parents–where they had Sinatra, we had Eddie Fisher, Tommy Sands and Bobby Darin–the Boomers were bored to death with the music that came before them. They were convinced there was no music as good as theirs. Our look had been much the same as those who came just before us too, but all that would change in the 1960’s when the generation just behind me reached full visibility with long hair on both males and female, beards on men as soon as they could grow them, and jeans, love beads and tie-dyed tee-shirts for all. Jerry Rubin said, “Never trust anybody over 30." I had already rounded that corner, so I was just on the other side of trustworthiness. Life was now referred to as “life style,” and mine was decidedly over the hill already. But I have waited it out. I have given up trying to understand and instead have taken to pontificating.
There is this thing about time, once you get well into your sixties. It fucking flies by you. You’ll start to remember an event or incident or person you haven’t seen in awhile and realize it was 30 years ago! Little babies that were born that day are doctors and lawyers now.
Your doctors look like kindergarteners. Your own children are adults. Years disappear with amazing alacrity, and projects just fall into your hands, whether you are looking for them or not. The next thing you know they are done and you are halfway into something else. Even if you’ve never written anything, you start to write, something to validate your time on this earth–a family history, an autobiography, a blog, or all three. You become obsessed with defining what it was all about. You think if you can just get a handle on it, what you are writing will matter to someone else, living now or scheduled to be born in the future.
And, if you’re me especially, you keep doing weird things that you think will provide a portion of the answer. You read self-help books. You join an Internet Dating Service. You go to a lot of movies. You go on a lot of diets. You travel long distances to reconnect with friends you haven’t seen since high school. You invest time, money and emotion to re-kindle a romance that never was.
And wherever you go, if you pass a mirror, you glance into it and see a stranger.