Friday, January 21, 2005

America When I Was Growing Up

Late Fifties / Early Sixties

We grew up in America, drinking Coca-Cola, eating Hershey Bars, feeling our oats, hiding Playboy magazine, confident of success. Everything was Baseball and Mom's chocolate pie and "Wow, we got a new black and white TV yesterday!"

When I was a kid, we didn't worry endlessly about cancer or more than casually about calories. Street crime, corporate crime, and terrorists were unknown or Foreign. I had a great oversized rusty tricycle (I was a big kid) and later a great bicycle that lasted a long time. Things weren't shoddy, though Japan still was. People smoked, people ate, people drank, and we didn't get neurotic about it. There were the Commies, of course, but everything about that was going to work out—our President had big muscles where it counted, we could always nuke 'em if we had to! Poof, they wouldn't know what him 'em! If we ourselves weren't going to grow up to be President, we at least felt certain we wouldn't grow up to live in cardboard boxes or in our Chevy station wagons under the overpasses. We were on the road to ourselves, we felt, and that would make everything all right. We'd squash commies with every step we took, like they were damned cockroaches caught in the glare of the kitchen light, too stupid sometimes to even run the right way.

Yeah, we were burning up the road, and mighty proud of it. Unsafe cars? There was no such thing! There was fast and slow, there was "square" and stylish, that's all. In fine, we were gorgeously innocent and ignorant. We were having fun and expecting to have even more. Gasoline was cheap, and would forever remain so. We could go where we wanted to go in cars going faster than they ought to go. There were no seat belts.

We were naive, and it was very pleasant to be so. But then we began to hear terrible things about "truth in government". There wasn't any. One might as well have expected a commercial for laundry soap to be truthful. And suddenly we had to mourn the tragedy of the "death of God", and to despise the murders of helpless black children in the south. Eventually Viet Nam and Watergate would jump in our faces and vomit.

For most of us, the mask definitely came off with the assassination of President Kennedy. We watched Kennedy get the back of his head blown off, but pretended for an amazingly long while that it was just a nice neat bloodless little hole. There were assassinations of other irreplaceable American heroes (black and white) by implacable idiots who just wanted to have a single evil act of theirs celebrated before they died—all of this was shoved down our throats and it was hard to swallow. Later we wouldn't be able to decide if all these murderers were among America's worst foes or among America's worst victims, but it didn't really matter—the heroes were just as dead, shot down in front of us.

From all such grief we learned the emerging new view of America and of ourselves... The banner was bloody and vulgar... We were changing from a country of God fearing white people (black and brown people didn't exist) to a country full of trigger-happy geeks carrying guns they just bought 15 minutes ago, and it was no longer so pleasant to live here. Now one is always nervous, always on the lookout for someone about to flip out.

Racism will eventually get you in the guts, whether it's your own racism or that of the other guy. But it's not just racism; it's every extremism and schism. And it's every form of theft and larceny and cheating. The people who brought down Enron may have been artists about the legal obfuscations of it, but they were just common purse-snatchers nonetheless. It's every form of harm now. If you're feeling irritable, plow your car through a crowd of pedestrians at a weekend flea market. Nowadays you can't buy a Coke, a Tylenol, or a jar of Gerber baby food and feel very confident about it not being poisoned. Even if you're not one of the victims, it's like going through life with gnats and mosquitoes always buzzing in your face!

And don't we all secretly wish that there was just one person who was to blame for it all and he was right here in front of us—who among us would hesitate to murder that SOB with any weapon close at hand?

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