My generation

An essay on class warfare and the deep divisions inherited from the ’60s


There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed,
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain.

—“In My Life,” Lennon/McCartney

I left my hometown the summer I graduated from high school, climbing into the back seat of my Uncle Ralph’s car to ride more than 2,000 miles with three younger cousins and two hamsters as we headed to Los Angeles with Ray Charles singing “Hit the Road, Jack” on the radio, providing a soundtrack to the new life I was launching.

California was still considered golden in those days, and so I lit out for a place where the sun was always shining, where my dim hometown prospects might be brightened. Other graduates of my class took up their lives in the town where most of us were born, marrying classmates, taking jobs and not so gradually growing old.

In 2011, my high-school graduating class will be holding its 50-year reunion. It’s a shindig I won’t be attending. We were a divided generation when we graduated, and those divisions have mostly widened in the years since then. More than a few of the people who shared classrooms and locker rooms with me back then turned out to be the core demographic that sustains Fox “News” and right-wing talk radio.

Illinois, where this reunion will take place, is a blue state, but the town where I was born is out in farm country, where things often skew to the right. Though I share some of the general dissatisfaction with the way things have gone since we graduated, I don’t trace my personal disgruntlement to the same sources.

When the reunion efforts began, a couple of the people inclined to get involved in rounding up the survivors of that long-ago graduating class began to send out lists and solicit information of the whereabouts of people who were proving hard to locate. Not long after those e-mail addresses were posted, I began to receive e-mails from some of my former classmates, little messages that had nothing to do with nostalgia for the times we shared long ago.

One of the guys I graduated with sent an e-mail to all of his classmates, conveying his political posture in the following bit of crude humor. “Never hold your farts in,” it read. “They travel up your spine and into your brain, and that’s where shitty ideas like Obamacare come from!!!”

Since that keen observation arrived in my e-mail inbox, others have followed, including one that showed a tap-dancing caricature of President Barack Obama, an image that could just as easily have been found in a minstrel show of the 19th century, a deeply racist image gleefully spread by a graduate of the class of ’61, the same year Obama was born.

The following day, yet another image turned up, one that featured a smiling President Obama wearing a Nazi uniform and drinking from a tin cup that bore a skull and crossbones, and the slogan “Rationing your health is patriotic.”

That particular e-mail message ended with encouragement to forward it on to other “real Americans.”

Uncle Sam wants you … to get faded and spin some Beatles. Or at least this might help some former hippies, now-tea partiers, recover.

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So the idea of standing around a ballroom with a plastic glass in my hand, talking to a bunch of old people who are enjoying their Medicare benefits while fulminating against extending such benefits to others ain’t really my idea of a good time. If I need a dose of selfishness and self-righteous ignorance, I don’t have to travel anywhere to find it.

Most of the people now turning up at those tea party protests lamenting the loss of their America are of my generation, a group once defined by the media as the Woodstock generation. Only a relative few of us ever got to Woodstock, though many more claimed to have been there once the event had become such an iconic and historic moment.

There’s a joke about the ’60s, that if you can remember them, you probably weren’t there. Lots of the men and women who will attend my high-school reunion missed the ’60s entirely. They missed the civil-rights movement, they missed psychedelia, they missed the war on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, neither marching against it nor fighting in it. They were busy with other things—kids, jobs, bowling tournaments.

The world is not as it is defined by the media, after all. The stories and the fads that catch the attention of the press are, almost by definition, fringe elements. The unremarkable goes unremarked upon, and so all those members of my generation who disappeared into those disappearing factories never got much press coverage. But many of them long for a simpler time, when worthy people didn’t ask for government handouts that might threaten the Medicare payments received by real Americans.

Our high-school yearbook was called Polaris. Polaris is the brightest star in Ursa Major, though I doubt many of us graduates knew that. The year before we graduated, the first launch of the Polaris missile took place at Cape Canaveral, later to be renamed Cape Kennedy in the dark days following that young president’s assassination.

The Polaris was a nuclear-armed missile of the kind that haunted our nightmares, making us a rather doom-struck generation, brought up with air-raid drills and “duck and cover” exercises meant to prepare us for an all-out nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, now defunct.

In the early days of our graduation year, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed that the torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans. The torch they carried would lead us into Vietnam and a war that would widen the divide between people my age into a chasm that never really closed. In the year Kennedy was sworn in and my class issued out into the “real” world, the new president urged Americans to begin digging bomb shelters in their backyards (woe unto you if you lived in an apartment). The Soviet Union freaked us all out once again by putting a man in space, and Fidel Castro proclaimed his alliance with the Soviet Union, thus putting the red menace right under our noses.

I study the pictures of our unlined faces in that old yearbook, the girls in nearly identical sweaters, with ponytails or overly fussed perms, the guys in sport jackets and thin ties. Girls I once yearned after are now grown old, loved by other boys grown to men, with children now well into middle age.

There were just more than 300 of us in my graduating class. I graduated near the bottom of that class, one of those perennial fringe kids victimized by our own rebellious posturing. We had entered adolescence about the time James Dean was offering lessons in how to be a teenager in Rebel Without a Cause, and many of us donned rebellion as a proclamation of who we were. We were misunderstood youth, damn it, born to a world we never made, a place bristling with doom in the form of nuclear missiles that made a catch phrase like “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse” seem like a fairly good idea, since we’d be checking out soon, anyway. Surly was our attitude; defiant was our posture.

I see that attitude as a charade against fear. Lots of us guys who were in fairly constant trouble were scared of lots of stuff, with troubled lives at home and rather frightening prospects facing us when we left high school. So we attempted to appear indifferent to the grown-ups’ expectations of us, even as we feared not being able to meet those expectations.

The grown-ups, as it turns out, were more than willing to play fast and loose with our health and safety. Soon after we graduated, they hauled a whole bunch of us over to Vietnam, where 58,000 of us would die and a whole lot more would be permanently bunged up, physically or mentally.

From Woodstock to Medicare, most of this writer’s classmates lived out their lives in his rural Illinois hometown.

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One of the first pieces of adult mail most of us boys ever received was a thoughtful little note from our draft board instructing us to pay a visit to that local office. I can still remember the name of the woman who headed up that agency in my county. Her first name was Hazel, her last name was Schlampf, and though she’s surely long dead by now, the negative connotations of the job she did still cling to the three syllables of her name. I remember the vision I carried of her sitting at a desk and determining which of us would be taken by the military and which would not.

When our senior-year pictures were taken, I doubt a single one of us kids had ever smoked a joint. I know I hadn’t, and if there had been marijuana in my hometown, I would have found my way to it, just as I did to the other kinds of trouble that were available to me—drinking, fighting and hanging out with a “bad” crowd. Though there was talk about drugs, it was all literary, with allusions to Kerouac and the beats and stuff that was going on in New York or Los Angeles, where real life was being lived.

Hair divided us then, and would divide us even more in the years that followed graduation. We took an inordinate amount of time with our hair back in those days, and I’m only talking about the guys now, many of us affecting a pompadour or what we called a D.A. (which stood for duck’s ass). Most of us couldn’t work up sideburns, and school officials would have banned them had any of us managed to grow a decent set.

If you wanted to look like a hoodlum in 1961, and some of us did, you grew your hair a little long, and then you sculpted it with Brylcreem (“A little dab’ll do ya”) into a greasy swept-back glacier on either side of your noggin, culminating in the aforementioned duck’s ass, where the two sides met at the precise middle of the back of your head.

More than a decade after we graduated, television would cast that image as “The Fonz” in a show called Happy Days, which, predictably, squeezed out all the immediate troubles and insecurities we had known back then and rendered the flab of memories from the past into something much simpler and more palatable. Happy days.

The other end of the hair spectrum in those “happy” days was the crew cut or flattop, a look that adorned the heads of guys who, I suspect, turned out to be the old dudes who are now so enamored of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. The cultural divide back when we were young was defined by those of us who identified with Elvis and those of us who identified with Pat Boone. Boone, of course, turned out to be one of the right-wing hysterics, and Elvis turned out to be dead, which was, all too often, how those two tribes played out their respective identities through the years that followed.

Our TVs weren’t very big back then, and they were nearly all black-and-white, though you could hardly find any black people on any of the three broadcast channels available to most people. Married couples on television could not be seen sharing a bed, and words like pregnant were considered too risqué for the viewing public to hear. The minimum wage was a buck an hour, and gas cost about 20 cents a gallon. Most people seldom called anyone long distance unless it was an emergency, because communication was even more expensive then than it is now. The U.S. automakers and the U.S. steel makers had no serious competition from any other country in the world. Unions were strong, and growing, and as a result, so was the American middle class.

Old people who got sick and were without medical insurance were routinely plucked of all they possessed by the costs of the care they needed in their last years. There was no Medicare, and when it was proposed a few years after my class graduated, the right wing said it was socialized medicine that would bankrupt the nation and destroy incentive. In the words of Yogi Berra, a Yankee ballplayer of that era, these days it’s “déjà vu all over again.”

Jack Kerouac had recently established the paradigm of the American road as the place to seek freedom, so some people set out to do a lot of mindless and rather pointless driving from place to place, looking for something nobody could quite define. No one I knew had ever seen a seat belt, let alone an air bag.

Nearly everyone thought homosexuality was a perversion, and few young men of my time would have taken issue with the idea that rolling a “queer” for his money was a crime. After all, they were pervs, so they had it coming.

Judging from the messages my fellow students wrote in my yearbook, the word sharp was the highest accolade a person could receive. “You’re a real sharp guy,” several girls scribbled in mine. It would have eased my way a good deal if they’d shared that opinion a few years earlier, when I was suffering the myriad insecurities that came with being 6 foot 3 inches tall and weighing about 140 pounds. Skinny I may have been, but I was unknowingly “sharp,” apparently.

From the 1961 <i>Polaris</i> yearbook. The youth to the immediate below is Richard Otte, whose senior picture was next to author Jaime O&#8217;Neill&#8217;s. He was killed in Vietnam. O&#8217;Neill is shown below right, towering over the other members of the Art Club.

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Both my weight and my sharpness may have been attributable to the fact that I was, from 16 on, a heavy smoker. Most of us were. Cigarettes cost 25 cents a pack, and people smoked in movie theaters and in the waiting rooms of hospitals and doctors’ offices. There were ads in magazines in which doctors endorsed certain brands of cigarettes. College classes were cloudy with cigarette smoke, as were restaurants. There was virtually nowhere people weren’t found smoking.

Divisions sowed when we were young now play out, as people my age squabble over changes proposed by a black president. The year Obama was born, those of us in northern Illinois had only to drive a few hundred miles south to find restrooms and drinking fountains segregated by race. The racial divide in our own little town was distinctly drawn at the banks of the Pecatonica River. Though all of the kids in that town went to the same high school, no black person lived on the west side of that river, and very few white people lived on the east side of it.

The young people whose pictures will grace this year’s Polaris will not share the innocence about drugs my graduating class knew, and that’s a legacy that can be traced to my generation. If there’s a high-school kid in my hometown these days who has not tried marijuana and meth and other street pharma, that kid is more of an anomaly than a daily doper would have been at any small-town Midwestern high school back in 1961.

But my generation was already incubating the Grateful Dead and other doom-struck dopesters. We listened to songs like “Save the Last Dance for Me,” watched movies like On the Beach, and read novels like A Canticle for Leibowitz that marinated many of us in fear, imbuing us with the romantic notion that we would surely be the last generation on Earth. And once Kennedy was shot, the world as we knew it came tumbling down. The music changed overnight, it seemed, and there were two trains running—one seemed headed for a Dionysian world in which life proclaimed itself, and the other was slouching toward Bethlehem.

In almost no time at all, we were tokin’ and trippin’, making haste to live. The lesson, for many, was to “get it while you can,” a view that claimed the lives of many who were exponents of that notion—Janis, Jimi and Jim, all dead at 27. Soon, some of us would be in the streets, marching against the war in Vietnam, and listening to Country Joe singing “Yippee! We’re all gonna die,” and others of us would be in Vietnam, adorning our helmets with “apocalypse now” a full decade before that movie would be made.

Mortality was waiting for us, along with spouses, babies, bills and all the other joys and challenges that come with life’s E-ticket ride. Some of us, however, didn’t ride for long. A couple of us didn’t make it to 25. One member of my class died in Vietnam, a boy whose picture appears right next to mine in the yearbook, a jock I don’t remember at all. His name—Richard Otte—adorns the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., that heart-wrenching slab of black marble where people of my generation go to shed tears too long held back.

On more than one occasion, I have wondered if he might have died in the jungles of Southeast Asia at the actual moment I was marching against that war on the streets of San Francisco.

His may have been the most dramatic encounter with mortality among that high-school graduating class, but plain ol’ death has claimed about one in five of us so far, with more of us looking shakier all the time. Cancer and heart attacks snared the majority of those who have died, including the very first girl who ever laid a claim on my affections, being the unknowing focus of a wholly confusing first-grade crush that had me waiting in the snow and cold so I could walk beside her to school, my feet growing numb in my galoshes and my nose running from the sub-freezing cold. In general, it proved to be a fairly precise preview of my relations with the opposite sex, nearly all of which required a great deal of waiting and more than a little discomfort, mostly worth it.

The largest percentage of my classmates lived out their lives in our hometown, marrying and divorcing there, and taking jobs in the factories that have, one by one, closed down, exporting those jobs overseas. I worked for two of those manufacturing plants during the two summers before graduation, and I think my mother and father, between them, worked for them all at one time or other.

There were some 15 such factories providing work and futures for my graduating class and their parents, all of them now gone, along with the heart of town, a once thriving six-block business district that now looks like most small-town centers, with boarded up shops and vacant lots where small businesses once supported families. The usual array of thrift shops struggle on downtown, though fewer and fewer people venture there.

On the day I graduated, there was no Berlin Wall, and there is no Berlin Wall now. That summer, the United States would back a failed invasion of Cuba in an attempt to unseat Fidel Castro. In the fall of that year, the Soviet Union would detonate a 50-megaton hydrogen bomb, the largest explosive device the world had seen up to that time. Now, 49 years further on, there is no longer a Soviet Union, but the Cold War my generation fought and endured would gobble up massive amounts of wealth in both nations, and would lead to the deaths of untold millions throughout the world.

John Lennon, one of my generation’s venerated voices, said, “The older generation are leading this country to galloping ruin.” That was true when John was young and alive, and it’s true now that he’s dead, except now the old people who were ruining everything have been replaced by a new batch of old people who are ruining everything. “We’ve met the enemy and he is us,” to quote an ancient Pogo cartoon. Or, in the words that gave the title to a long-ago long-playing stereophonic record album from the ’60s, “We’re all bozos on this bus.”

A few months ago, Americans gathered to watch a football game that has become a national obsession. The Super Bowl didn’t exist when my class left high school, but it is now as iconic an American ritual as the World Series. In this year’s game, two American cities, both blighted by unemployment and one still suffering from a badly handled national disaster, were represented by millionaire players who battered one another through to an outcome that would mean little to the inhabitants of either town.

At halftime, very wealthy rock stars—the Who—performed before an audience that included millions of their fellow geriatrics, men and women who had once mouthed the words of their anthemic song that included the line “Hope I die before I get old.” The Who didn’t perform that particular number on Super Bowl Sunday, of course. They did “Pinball Wizard,” for starters, a song about a deaf, dumb and blind kid who is certainly as emblematic of their generation—and mine—as was that song in which they were “talkin’ ’bout my generation” and urging us all to cherish the notion of early death.

In a decade or so, we’ll mostly all be gone, leaving behind our children and grandchildren, along with the history we made and the changes we wrought. It wasn’t all good, that legacy, not by a long shot, but in the current vernacular, it is what it is, and we were what we were, forged by the events of our times and by the legacy of our parents and grandparents, the things we took from them and the things we fought to cast aside. The wars we waged, at home, abroad, between us and within each of our hearts, will be swept aside, forgotten, replaced by the struggles and conflicts that will consume the generation that follows. And the generations that follow them.