Sunday, April 8, 2018

It was a a very good year


     I try never to get in a tug-o-war with strangers on Facebook.
     There's no end to it. 
     Because there's more of them than there are of me.
     But, being human, sometimes I get sucked in.
     Someone posted a painting of a farmer and his son gazing off into the sunrise with a caption "I miss the American I grew up in."
    Talk about a slow pitch down the middle. I couldn't help it. I swung on my heels.
      "Then you don't remember it," I wrote.
     She objected, naturally enough, and I removed my gotcha question from its special lead-lined case.
    What year, I asked, specifically, are you missing? When is this lost time of happiness that you wouldn't mind returning? 
    "1952," she said.
     I did a little research research—as I said, no end to it—and then returned to her page.
    Did she, I asked, miss the thousands of Americans who died in Korea? 
    Or was it the thousands, mostly children, who died of polio? 1952 was the worst year ever for that dread disease: 57,000 cases in the United States. In one week in July, 11 of the 14 Thiel children of Mapleton, Iowa, got sick. That September, four of six children in a family in Milwaukee caught a particularly virulent strain of polio and quickly died, one after another. Is that what she wants back?
    Maybe it was the Red Scare that she was shedding a nostalgic tear for: Joe Stalin was very much alive in 1952, and loyalty oaths were big. Or McCarthyism—Tailgunner Joe had not yet been chastised by his fellow senators. 
    Maybe it was rampant Jim Crow. That was fun.
    Here the conversation ended. Which is the main reason not to engage in these conversations, to stretch the word. Because even if you win, you lose. Changing your mind is hard, particularly for a person old enough to pine for 1952. They'd rather shrug and move on than face the shattering prospect of being wrong.
    I just don't get that. I'm wrong all the time. I thought the Kinks song "Lola" was about a girl. I thought cell phones were a fad. Being wrong, and the ability to admit it, doesn't undercut my worth as a human—it emphasizes it. When I cop to making a mistake, it's almost like revealing a superpower, because so few can do it. It's as if I could turn invisible or fly, and almost as useful.
    And I understand what motivates people to nostalgia. The wonderful details of your life remain clear; the less felt details of the news fade away.  
     It isn't that I'm not nostalgic myself. I am. I was 17 in 1977, and there were cool things going on. Punk was big in London, and I was there, on Wardor Street, bouncing to the Vibrators at the Marquee Club.  In my hometown, if you stopped at the gas station, Clark's, Jack would come out, pump your gas, check your oil, chat a bit, and maybe slip you stick of gum. That was nice.
    But I would never, ever argue that 1977 was a Golden Age. I'm not saying that all years are the same. Some are worse—1942—some are better. But however you see a year, you have to recognize that you are viewing it through the lens of your own experience. The day my first son was born in 1995 was a very good day. For me. Not so good for the parents of the seven kids who died when a bus was hit by a train in Fox River Grove. 
     I'm going to really try to stop engaging strangers on Facebook. It's a challenge enough to do it with your friends and loved ones.
    My father once said to me, "You know, people were just kinder when I was growing up."
    And I answered, "This era of kindness of which you speak, dad, was that the Great Depression or World War II, because I just don't see it."
    I don't remember his reaction. 

26 comments:

  1. I am as guilty as anyone. Not for a particular time and place, but one where our American ideals were at least given lip service.
    Equality, justice? We seem to have sacrificed our ideals and glorified a reverse Calvinism. Those born with it keep it and those who figure out a way to steal it are glorified - even elected to run (or dismantle) our institutions.
    "The times, they are a changin'" was once an anthem, now it feels like a threat. Probably how it once felt to the fearful of that generation. But this return to an 1850's view of America is surely not what they mean.

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  2. Like the friends of mine who used to pine about a dream of going back in time. First, it is an impossIbility. Second, who would want to do that shit again. I remember the turmoil, so I have no rose colored view of the 60's. But I guess that was your point.
    Sometimes are just better than others and the pendulum sometimes swings backwards for the worse, and sometimes the better.

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  3. I, too, miss 1952 - but that was because I was only 8 years old then and my biggest worry was whether I would skin my knee or whether mom and dad would remember to get me the latest Wizard of Oz or Sue Barton , Nurse installment for the next holiday, or whether mom would make her great chocolate fudge cake that weekend - no worry about the next client fee coming in, or the scary jackolantern masquerading as a President, or terrorists, or that latest knee or back pain. 1952 was for me a pretty good year. My most famous person was Howdy Doody and I wanted to be on the Micky Mouse Club. Could that be what she meant?

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  4. "gazing off into the sunrise..." is one perspective; it could just as easily be Tom Joad watching the sun set on his hardscrabble existence.

    People who pine for the past aren't missing a specific era in the history of the world. They're missing a period of their lives when they weren't yet aware of the world's mortar-and-pestle capabilities, At some point they wake up, notice they're ankle-deep in dust, and, lacking introspection, blame the world for the loss of their innocence.

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  5. I think neophobia often drives our nostalgia

    Also I agree that admitting one is wrong is very difficult for most people. Although our wrongness is an interesting window into our own personal limitations abd foibles. I thought books on tape would never catch on because I personally HATE listening to things being read. have to say that I’m amazed that you thought cell phones would be a fad. My question is why. Obviously most people wanted to have the freedom to leave their home and not miss calls. But if you are one of the minority who welcomed just that you may not have realized just how much in the minority you were. ( As I failed to realize with my own dislike for books on tape. “ Surely most people are like me” was the kind of thinking that led me astray.

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  6. Tailgunner Joe had not yet been driven out of the senate.

    Sorry to nitpick, but McCarthy was never exactly driven out of the senate. He was still a senator when he drank himself to death.

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    1. Not, that's not nit-picking, you're right. He was censured in late 1954, but remained a senator, his power diminished, until his death in 1957. I'll adjust the copy.

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  7. I am tending to believe that the driver of nostalgia is less a fear of the new, and more a fear of the future, specifically the inevitability and finality of death. At 57 years of age, I’ve had numerous similar-aged friends, classmates and co-workers pass on in recent years, losing six in the past year alone. At times, I’ve found myself in fond rememberance of 1977-1979 (Television, Patti Smith and the Ramones for me, Neil - more NYC than London) and it’s warm fuzzy embrace and comforting illusion of being a better period of time. Not to make light of a very serious issue, but in some respects nostalgia is sort of a mental opioid shielding me from the physical and mental degradation of the aging process and correspondingly the gradual loss of both my youth and the tangible and intangible aspects of my youth.

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  8. I'm guilty as anyone. Not for a time or place, but for them dying of our belief in our American ideals.
    We don't even pretend anymore that equality ot fair play or justice are noble ideas worth striving towards.
    We honor the scammer, the con-man. The ends of wealth and power justify any means.

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  9. Your father probably reacted badly. People don't generally like one tinkering with their fond memories. I'm old enough to remember 1952 as a somewhat anxious time because I was young and suffering the anxieties of youth. But nothing more. Plucking real tragedies from the historical record, it was the year Alan Turing, one of the most consequential contributors to scientific advancement of the last century was prosecuted for homosexual acts and submitted to "treatments" that probably led to his suicide.

    W. H. Auden wrote a fine poem about the individual nature of much tragedy, based on a Breughel painting portraying the fall of Icarus. It begins by observing that the old Masters understood that most human suffering takes place "While someone else is eating, or opening a window, or just walking dully along."

    Then goes on with:

    "In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
    Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
    Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
    but for him it was not an important failure; etc. etc."

    I knew vaguely about the Kink's "Lola," but for me the name evokes a 60ish
    Marlene in cabaret singing "My name is naughty Lola, I'm the wisest girl on earth."

    Tom

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  10. Context is everything, as they say. Or used to, in the good old days.

    Since I saw that poster image on EGD, I kinda skipped right past the significance of the farmer in his overalls and the trio of bandannas, and just read the words. And settled in for what I assumed was going to be our host's evocation of a former America where it was just accepted that Nazis were bad, where the idea of any president, let alone a Republican one, openly sucking up to the Russians would be unthinkable, a time when a president paying hush money to a porn star he slept with might cause more than 60% of the country to question his fitness for office, a time before "Citizens United," a time when stealing a Supreme Court seat was considered beyond the pale by both "sides." And so on.

    Uh, it didn't take me long to figure out my error, but you'd think the iron lung atop the blog, the first image I saw, would have helped steer me in the right direction to begin with. Even so, in the alternative version of the column I imagined, that image would help to recall a time in America when vaccines were welcomed as lifesavers, rather than being avoided and derided, because folks were intimately familiar with the things they were preventing. One could simply insert a Jenny McCarthy reference to replace Joe McCarthy...

    In 1977, punk may have been big in London, but disco was the trend I recall here. I didn't think that was very cool! : )

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    1. Disco sucks! Just ask The Insane Coho Lips Anti-Disco Army.

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    2. Viewing an iron lung still creeps me out. Just as it did when I was five in 1952 and became terrified by thoughts of staring up at the ceiling until death released me. Those "signs of sickness" brought a mirthless chuckle. Headache, fever, sore throat, upset stomach, sore muscles, stiff neck or back, tiredness, nervousness, trouble in breathing or swallowing...just another beautiful day in the geezerhood.

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  11. 1952 was a halcyon year for me too. Got to watch -- from a very safe distance -- our heroes fighting evil in Korea, Phantom jets v. Migs, Lone Ranger v. the bad guys. There was a bit of regret inherent in all this, however. I knew that this was the Last War, that I would never have the chance to prove my manhood by risking my life in the air or on the ground, defending freedom against tyranny. I think I beat Neil in the ability to be wrong.

    john

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    1. I thought Vietnam was the last war. I remember arguing with my best friend about it, and he had done a tour over there. I can't imagine why I thought I knew more about war than he did.

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    2. Not that it is at all important, but the F-4 Phantom Jet entered the inventory in the 1960's. The F-86 Sabre Jet swept the sky of MIG's during the Korean War.

      Tom

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    3. I was naive enough to think that all war was unjust and that the world had finally seen the light. What a dope.

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    4. I can still recall being twelve and hearing my father, who hadn't yet reached forty, trading war stories with his age-mates from next door and across the alley. Everything from my old man's being an Army paymaster (pretty important, actually) to driving a tank to navigating a B-17 to entering Dachau with Patton's Third Army, opening the oven doors, and viewing what lay within (that one gave me nightmares). After a while, somebody quietly said: "You know, I wouldn't have missed it for anything, but I sure as hell wouldn't want to do it again." There were no replies, and none needed.

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  12. In 1952 the murder rate was 4.6. What is the murder rate now? My grandmother was raised dirt poor in the depression and never locked her doors. Yes, there was terrible systemic racism we had to vomit out but it was also a safer country. Just a fact.

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    1. Umm, 4.5 in 2014. Are you starting to understand? It went up a bit 20 years ago. But it's back down now. Though, as I mention above, I try not to argue with Afraid.

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  13. I miss when WIND was an oldies-intensive adult contemporary station. I miss Gene Pitney, Petula Clark (she's still touring and recording new music), Brenda Lee and Fats Domino. I miss Marcus Welby MD. I miss the Polish restaurants and diners in my neighborhood which are now taquerias and mariscos. But would I go back to the 1950s? I'd be dead! The medicine I need to keep my diabetes under control didn't exist. Racism, homophobia and misogyny were accepted. If you wanted to eat in a smoke-free environment you were probably some kind of communist. Nobody understood autism; I'd be considered a freak. I wouldn't be able to work from home as I do. So, no. I don't want it to be the 1950s. I just wish there was still a radio station around that played 50's and 60's without 70's and 80's music. At least there is Me-TV FM, Sirius-XM and Accuradio. And an internet where I can babble on like this. So I'll live for today with fond memories of the good things of my youth.

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  14. There were (and still are) many people who considered the WWII years as the high point of their lives, whether on the home front or in the service or even in combat. War unites a country in a common purpose and releases the individual from the tedium and monontony of everyday humdrum life. It was also the last time this country was truly the "United" States. We saw that same feeling for about three months after 9/11, but that was a mere eye-blink in time.

    The year 1952 is a little hazy for me, as I was just turning five. Year-old sister, entertainment from early TV and the first mass-market LPs, the only time I've ever been hospitalized...knock on wood...(tonsillectomy), and the terrors of kindergarten.

    Ironically, the year I recall most fondly is 1968, even though it was the year everything went wrong in America, and when the country truly seemed to be on the edge of disintegration. To be a college student and to be 21 and involved in the New Left in 1968 was as euphoric as the substances being ingested and the music being played.

    Yes, there were also the deaths of MLK and RFK, but there was also the historic debacle in Chicago (of which I was a part) and one could still hitch-hike long distances for next to nothing. Chicago to Montreal and then from NYC all the way out to SoCal, before being robbed by bikers in South Texas and thumbing 1,500 miles home with seven dollars in my shoe and the clothes on my back. All so that Daley's cops could clock me in my own hometown. Chicago fun-times.

    For my father, the zenith of his life was in the Philippines in 1945. For his son, it was on Route 66 in 1968.

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  15. Actually, in Canada we don't have this kind of nostalgic yearning for the 1950s. For us, the 50s were just another decade.
    I have always felt that for the United States, the real problem was what came after the 50s, mainly the Vietnam War and how it destroyed America's comforting belief in its own righteousness. For Americans, the 50s were the last decade that people could remember as a time when life was "normal" and America was "good".
    After the 50s, Kennedy was assassinated, and Vietnam was a long national nightmare, and then King and Bobby were killed and then Watergate happened, then the Iran hostage crisis, then the US almost lost its cities under Reagan's ineptitude, and then there was Clinton's impeachment, and then 9-11, and Iraq and torture and Gitmo and the financial collapse -- it just went on and on, with something awful happening every few years.

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  16. It's about remembering the good times of your youth as idyllic and forgetting about the bad times you also had because you can't remember what the future holds!

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Thanks for commenting.