On the first day of first grade in the mid-1950s, I looked at the blackboard, where Miss Wheeler (dark hair, red lipstick, high heels) had written the date in flowing feminine script. It registered in a decisive kind of way. It was an official beginning. Or ending. Up until then, I’d lived in the timeless world of preschool childhood, where there are no dates or days of the week, no nationality, where you’re free to interpret the world as it presented itself in the form of pure phenomena to your fresh, brand-new, blissfully ignorant but busy, busy little brain and senses.
I missed the Korean War and the McCarthy era. That is, I missed them the way you’d miss a marching band if you were deaf and looking in the other direction. I was a very little kid, oblivious to the adult world of politics and social, technological and cultural upheaval which were the legacy of World War II, which I did actually miss, because it ended several years before I was born.
Of course, the big world was rearranging itself intensely all around everyone in the country and the rest of the planet during those postwar years, and was ineffably shaping me and my contemporaries, whether we knew it or not. This is true for anyone in any era in any place, naturally, but to be an American “boomer” of a certain vintage is to have lived in a richly particular and high-octane confluence of cultural, technological, artistic and philosophical metamorphosis at a time when our formative receptors were wide open for business.
We missed the war, but for a decade and more after it officially ended, its reverberations stayed powerful and immediate, washing over us like a speedboat’s wake. The country had tooled up into the greatest industrial machine the world had ever seen in order to win that war. And what’s particularly awesome about the whole deal is that it came in right on the tattered coattails of the Great Depression. The country had gone from the era of bread lines, 30% unemployment, the Dustbowl, collapsing banks, and more than ten years of profound brother-can-you-spare-a-dime national malaise directly into an era of total psychic rebirth, focus, dazzling inventiveness, resourcefulness and exploding prosperity.
It was a sexy era, too, from what I’ve read and been told. Guys and gals going off to war were getting gloriously laid, and gloriously laid again when they came home and the future was so bright you had to squint. And voila: the Baby Boom.
It was a brilliant world we were born into, full of fun and easygoing frivolity, but it had an uneasy, queasy current running through it, the exotic origins of which we were completely unequipped to understand or imagine, but which affected us directly. How could I have known when I was hiding under my desk during air-raid drills in the second grade in rural Connecticut that I had, at least in part, crumbling European monarchy of a bygone era and a princeling’s hemophilia to thank for the experience?
Jump back to 1916 Imperial Russia and WW I. Czar Nicholas has gone off to command the Russian Army, and he has left the Czarina Alexandra and her pal Rasputin, whose uncanny ability to stop the Czarevitch Alexei’s bleeding made him indispensable to the court, in charge of the government. Bad idea. The Czarina and the Mad Monk (who was not a monk at all, according to the son of the Czar’s personal physician, but a talented and ambitious Siberian peasant—talk about bootstraps!) made a hash of things, seriously aggravating already extant anti-monarchist sentiment in the land. When the Russian Revolution happened in 1917, the Royal Family was dealt with indelicately by the Bolsheviks—lined up against a wall, told they were posing for a photograph, and massacred, St. Valentine’s Day-style.
Was this it? Was this the wellspring, the fountainhead of our rich national paranoia? Had the upper classes in our own country, identifying with the Romanovs, picturing themselves dragged out of their mansions, tennis clubs and limousines and bloodily dispatched, made their fear everyone’s fear, fashioning the “commie” into a composite bogeyman that regular Americans could invest their own fears in? The “Reds,” we were told, were Jews, anarchists, freedom-haters! They were…un-American.
Commie-fear and the like had been around in the U.S.A. for a long time before the war, and paranoia is universal and eternal, but it reached a particularly virulent kind of fruition in the years right after the war. The new factor in the old equation was, of course, The Bomb. Kids my age grew up with that atomic fear all around us, rational or not. We missed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, HUAC, the execution of the Rosenbergs, Nixon and Alger Hiss, Truman’s “Campaign of Truth.” But we didn’t miss—if you’ll pardon the expression—their fallout. We were too young to understand that Russia was more scared of us than we were of them, that they had lost more than 20 million people in that war we missed, that the last thing they wanted was another war, that the idea that they would attack us was pretty much insane. We hadn’t reached the age of reason, knew nothing about the world except what came to us in elemental form through our eyes and ears and the words of the adults around us. We took it all in like little animals, believed it implicitly. When Krushchev promised to "bury" us, I took him at his word. We lived in the cross-currents of a paradox: the world was bright, fresh, victorious, bursting with life, magical technology and renewed possibility. It was also a world that might self-destruct at any moment in a howling fury, hotter than the sun, that would dissolve our flesh and scorch our bones and leave a wasteland, deader than dead. We grew up under the shadow of a secular apocalypse. All children, from the beginning of time, have been afraid of the dark. The darkness that we post-war babies feared—darkness preceded by a flash of light that would melt our eyeballs—had an extra dimension: science gone mad.
Nourishing this sense of fatalism were graphic images of ghastliness from the war years. As we grew into sensibility, we discovered that something really, really big had happened not long before we were born, and we learned that a lot of it was horror beyond horror. I remember the first time I saw a photograph from a death camp. I was probably around six years old. A crematorium door stood open, half-burnt ribs and skulls within. I think that was the exact moment I lost my innocence. I understood that the sunny, birds-and-butterflies zip-a-dee-doo-da world I’d stumbled into by birth had an underside, a fissure that reached straight down into hell itself, and that hell was right here on earth. And when I was told that it all might blow up in a heartbeat, I absolutely believed it.
The decade before I was born gradually revealed more and more of itself as I grew into awareness and saw more pictures and movies—of bodies piled up, Hitler and Mussolini with the veins standing out on their heads barking and spitting in front of frenzied mobs, incinerated living corpses wandering in the ruins of Hiroshima. I heard the doleful wail of air-raid sirens in old newsreels and the drone of bombers in the night sky, saw the images of people marching in the snow from nowhere to nowhere, and I became intensely aware of my aberrant good luck to be living in such a safe, peaceful time and place, in the midst of such abundance, modernness and fun. No barbed wire, no soldiers, no frostbitten feet. All the food I could eat, warmth and shelter, television, Loony Tunes, comics, Howdy Doody, Groucho, Mad Magazine, “Rock Around the Clock,” Elvis, Burl Ives, Tennessee Ernie Ford and flying saucers. I alternated between belief that this magically rich, pleasant and stimulating life was my permanent, inviolable, semi-anointed birthright and visions of a dark reality lurking just on the other side of a slim partition of time. I grasped the tenuous, utterly fickle quality of this thing called luck, and mainly, I grasped that its distribution, good and bad, had less than nothing to do with worthiness. It was an unwelcome bit of knowledge, but knowledge it was, and it would not be denied.
It turned me into quite the little philosopher. And as a seven-year-old existentialist, I wondered: What kind of world is this? What kind of world gives you Lassie with her beautiful fluffy coat shining in the sun, the Lone Ranger and Adolph Hitler and the A-bomb?
I’m still working on it.