I had a pretty happy childhood, all things considered. Actually, most children growing up in America in the early 1950s experienced a general sense of well-being – that is, if you were white and not poor.
There were many reasons for this. Our generation was close enough to the Second World War to feel that we belonged to the Victors, the side that had defeated the Evil Regime and set the world on an inevitable course towards global Democracy and Technicolor movies. Our president was the man who had commanded those forces that defeated those Evil Regimes, a grandfatherly figure who, though boring, nevertheless made us feel safe.
My family lived in a lower middle-class town outside of Newark, New Jersey. Most fathers there had secure if unexciting jobs and nearly all the mothers were what was then called “homemakers”, which to us meant primarily that they were nearly always at home. There were no opioid crises then, though the younger sister of a friend had “infantile paralysis,” or polio, and had to spend months in something called an “iron” lung,” which looked like a metal coffin with just her little head sticking out of one end.
Adding to my sense of superiority and exceptionalism was the fact that I was a Yankees fan, and in the early 1950s the Yankees seemed to win the World Series every year, or at least the pennant. In other words, our team was a team that always won.
For all these and other factors, I should have been a happy child – and I was, mostly. But one day – and even now, more than six decades later, I’m embarrassed to confess this -one day, when I was eight or nine, I remember suddenly thinking, There’s nothing left to do – all the problems of the world have been solved.
The thought hit me hard – in fact it depressed me. Looking back now, it was a pretty absurd and naïve thought. The world then, of course, was full of problems. Even as a nine-year-old, I was vaguely aware that there was some diffuse global menace out there called “Communism.” My schoolmates and I took part in Civil Defense “Duck and Cover” exercises, which consisted mainly of crouching under our desks and covering our heads with our arms – perhaps believing that the “lead” in our pencils that we left on the desk would protect us from the radiation of an atomic bomb.
There were other problems as well: the unraveling of European Colonial Empires in Asia and Africa and all the chaos and suffering that would cause; Jim Crow laws in the South, atom bomb tests on public land in the West, pervasive gender discrimination, and, closer to home, racial tensions simmering in Newark and other cities that would tear them apart fifteen years later – all of which I remained blissfully unaware of.
There were even obvious signs of environmental problems all around me. We lived next to what is now called” the Meadowlands” but which then was simply known as “the marshes,” a vast, polluted wetland that, because of oil spills, was frequently on fire. But nobody told us these were problems. We simply thought, “The marshes are burning? COOL!”
In other words, my life presented me with the illusion of a world that seemed a fait accompli, a place in which, though I felt safe, secured, and well-cared for, had nothing left for me to do in it, no exciting challenges to face, no dramatic wars to win, no good fights to fight, no unknown lands to discover, no planet to save.
Eventually, of course, reality broke through the protective history of my childhood, and now, along with everyone else, I walk through a world of wounds, social and environmental. I see mushroom clouds once again looming on the horizon and I am out of lead pencils. And the Republic, which once seemed so safe and secure, is now in the hands of small and hollow men blind to and uncaring of the problems we all must now face.