Sixty years ago an incident lodged in my memory forever as it seems, as I walked with the beautiful redheaded young lady who paused to ask me a question. There above an old outbuilding—I hesitate to call it a barn—there was a weathervane appearing as the silhouette of a rooster. But this image was perforated by several holes—.58 caliber, as I was later to learn—and my mother had a question for me: Now just who made those holes in the weathervane? I had no idea, but the answer suggested some thoughts to ponder: “The Yankees!” Whoever Yankees were, I, apparently, was not one of them, and neither was that lady with an abundance of red hair. And though I have known my share of disappointments since, the most deflating was to find out later that “foreigners” thought I was a Yankee. What a bummer, as they say in the parlance of our times.
I am still in contemplation of the implications of the image of the rooster and its ventilation. I was to learn more from the lady with the red hair—for example, that her paternal grandfather had fought in the Civil War. Though I could have asked for no better company than what I had at that moment of the blasted weathervane, I have sometimes thought that I could have used some additional feedback from, say, Homer, Heraclitus, Hegel, Marx, and Berra. Among the five of them, they could have straightened me out with a few insights relating the force of legend, the ambiguity of reality, the dialectic of history, tragedy repeated as farce, and how you can see a lot just by watching. Sometimes you do need a weathervane to see which way the wind blows.
There were other experiences that were cultural constructs. Music, for example—I remember music in the form of hymns sung at church. And in a more secular context, I remember hearing the radio—I remember the music that introduced “The FBI in Peace and War” (thank you, Mr. Prokofiev) and the music that introduced “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” (danke schön, Herr von Reznicek). Remembering Jack Benny et al., I do feel a certain queasiness as I contemplate hundreds of channels of tedium and innumerable examples of absurd “music.” If we had known then where popular culture was going, would we have related to it at all?
I did not know as a little kid that I was coming in on the tail-end of something when I went to the movies. I saw The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) sitting on the hood of a car in a drive-in theater in 1951—no one told me that such a viewing was privileged, but it was. I was in a movie house when I saw The Thing From Another World (directed by Christian Nyby, 1951) in the year of its release, and it scared me so much I stayed indoors for two weeks. Less of a scaredy-cat today, I think of it not as a Nyby but as a prime Howard Hawks and even a film noir, and am gratified to own a DVD of it, as I am now the arbitrary master of my own exclusive film series. And that is a good thing, since they indeed don’t make them like they used to; and since I am no longer afraid of flying monkeys, I can watch The Wizard of Oz all by myself if I want to, even in the dark. I mean to say that I am not afraid of flying monkeys in movies, though I am definitely afraid of flying monkeys when they have taken over the government, the academy, and the media. I seem to have the paranoid delusion that flying monkeys are trying to destroy me and everything I hold dear—now where could I have possibly gotten such an absurd notion?
I saw what I considered for five decades the best movie I ever saw in its first American release: The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1950). I understood nothing and felt everything. For some reason, I saw Boris Karloff in The Black Room (1935) projected as a first-run movie 50 years ago, and loved it. Boris still had what it takes in The Haunted Strangler (1958), and by that time, movies had begun a decline that was palpable and noted. Today, films are almost always overbearing and miscast and too loud and lacking in appeal. I miss faces and voices and command, and go to where they are—contemporary examples are rare.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Back in the 1950’s, no doubt I was challenged by a presumption that mine was a normal state—my situation was how it was supposed to be. But my situation was not so ordinary, though the best part of it, I strangely discovered, was actually standard. I refer to the kind, patient, and free treatment I received from my parents. I was probably wrongly surprised to discover that the home life of my peers was nearly as pleasant as mine was, but I never did discover in another house as many books as there were in ours. The books put a mark on me—it seemed that I was supposed to read them, and I have been trying to catch up ever since. When I went off to college—a big mistake, and not the last—I was shocked to hear over and over again how much each student I talked to hated his or her oppressive parents. And I felt set apart by that, and I still do, for I have never been impressed by the affectation of alienation, not then by James Dean, and not now by anyone or even by everyone.
There was one particular part of our lives that was a bit different, though it was shared by many: My father was in the service, so as an Air Force brat, I spent three years in Europe in the middle 50’s. That was an education, of course, and one I responded to. It was one thing to be told that the French were bitter after three invasions in seventy years, but another to be spat on in the street and to find communist stickers on the door, signs that read “Yankee go home!” It was one thing to hear about the resentment of Americans and their money and their coarseness, and another to behold a uniformed GI as he lit up with a Zippo by the altar of a cathedral while declaring that the churches in Ohio were better. I understood that scene well enough, but if I presumed then that such grossness was an aberration to be corrected—well, I was wrong.
I remember seeing in France a lot of walls in towns that seemed to have received the black rooster or Roaring Twenties treatment—they were perforated by rows of hits from machine guns. And I saw evidence of other violence as well in fortified towns, in castles, and even in well-kept parks. I once discovered that a placid park was the deceptive surface of part of the Maginot Line. In Germany, I learned to keep my eyes peeled as I walked down the road, looking for the glint of copper or brass or the mass of darker stuff, for the ditches routinely released treasures such as discarded bandoliers and clips of .30 caliber, 9 mm, .50 caliber, and even 20 mm rounds, rusted weapons of all kinds, helmets, bayonets, fragments of ordnance, and so on. We did not neglect bikes and roller skates, but my friends and I also liked to build our own forts and play war with rusty but authentic weighty weaponry. We found out that in the junkyard you could buy anything for a Deutschmark: rusted machine guns, rocket-launching tubes, you name it. That was the second time I realized I had arrived on the scene of violence after the ball was over, but the ossuary at Verdun demonstrated that war was not a game. Later on, my father would not countenance my attending military school, nor did I ever hear one word of jingoism from him.
Lifting my eyes from the tempting ditches, though, I would see ordnance and weaponry that was all shiny—not rusty at all. I saw a lot of RB-26 Invaders, F-80 Shooting Stars, F-86 Sabres, Martin RB-57 Canberras, and British aircraft as well: Gloster Meteors and De Havilland Vampires. I once saw a binational war game so involved that it looked like a psychedelic pinball game, a hallucinatory sky-full of twisting, roaring jets. The sinister glamour of the vision and the booming soundtrack did provoke thoughts about why they were there and why we were there. Back in France, we had rejoiced coming home from the chateau that was our school on the day that Stalin died (which was also the day that Prokofiev died). In our minds, we kept score. But I never heard anyone say that we would be there in Germany for 55 more years, with no end in sight. Those were the quaint days in which the North Atlantic Treaty Organization actually abided by its title, with no consideration of Afghanistan. I think today that the Cold War implied a destructive metamorphosis of the country, for the end of that war has not registered on the economy or our military posture. Such was one dialectical force that I knew in the 50’s, the consequences of which we live with still.
Looking back on it, I can see that my father had his ways of escape; one was fishing, and another was baseball. I remember walking to the top of a hill in Germany with him so he could get the Dodgers on shortwave radio. And of course I remember the great names of the outfielders in New York, and though we were out of the country, we saw the photographs of Willie Mays’ catch off Vic Wertz in 1954—a great catch, yes, but as my father always insisted, it was followed by “an even greater throw.” My father’s love of baseball was a passion, but it put him in an awkward position in two ways. The first was that he did not see anything odd about the commodification of a game and what that necessarily entailed. The second was that he actually believed, because of the propaganda he read in the sports pages, that the interests of baseball were best served by rich old men making arbitrary and self-serving decisions. So the Dodgers went to L.A., and the Giants went to San Francisco, and baseball became a TV show, and now between the steroids and the artificial teams and the absurd schedules, sports is something that I pretty much stay away from. So my memories of 50’s sports are clouded by a dialectical awareness of the destructive consequences of corporate-capitalist distortions. That does not mean that Duke Snider couldn’t play, of course, or that later Sandy Koufax wasn’t everything he was cracked up to be. But fishing was a better escape for my father, after all—as long as he could find a good place to pursue the art, and in those days, he could.
Returning to “stateside,” we were quite aware of the Supreme Court decision of 1954, Brown v. Board of Education, that called for the integration of the schools with all deliberate speed. Growing up, I heard a lot about that and read a great deal. I wanted to know what my parents thought, of course, and that was clear: My father thought as a serviceman, and the services had already been integrated—therefore the integration of the schools was on its way. He never indicated that he thought integration was wrong. My mother thought that the integration of the schools was right, but even if it was not, it was coming anyway, and therefore the opportunity should be seized and engaged with. For my own part, I thought that the banality of the process was deflating and disappointing: The federal troops in Little Rock and at the University of Mississippi seemed a familiar pattern, as the Civil War, as it were, was refought during its own centennial. The Southern response to the challenge was weak, clumsy, disorganized, and discredited. The Northern attitude was patronizing, abstract, armed, and triumphal—a familiar pattern. When the smoke cleared, another pattern emerged. There was a reverential unction attached to integration as an idol rather than as a means to an end. And then perhaps because of that, but certainly after that, the civil-rights movement morphed bizarrely into the feminist and homosexualist movements—movements that have appropriated the sanction and the clout formerly obtaining naturally to the civil-rights movement. No one can know how much was lost as the focus was diffused.
I remember some of the quaint issues of the day. Let’s see: One issue of inequality was that textbooks in black schools were often inferior to those in white schools, or they were used textbooks that had been discarded by the white schools—therefore the black youngsters were not getting an equal chance at education. Yet I never saw a headline that blared Working-Class Whites Flaunt Glossy Chemistry Texts or one that pronounced Black Parents Demand Superior Calculus Books. The now-forgotten thought that integration would provide for black students access to the best minds and knowledge has been completely repressed because of sanctioned cultural resentments, and because of the nonsensical superiority of our pampered youth. There was a flaw in thinking that white students lived in some utopian fantasy, in any event. The tragedy, or perhaps the predictable disaster, was that integration was coincident with the 60’s and its cultural dislocations, ones that pretty much put paid to the educational process, for if youth is knowledge, then there is no point to education at all. Segregation flourishes today in strange forms that do not challenge the education racket.
Having once been called a liar by “a woman of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education” for saying what I am about to reiterate, I will nevertheless insist that I had the good fortune to study Latin for five years of public high school. Back then, I did not know that it was the end of something, not the beginning, though I did know that Marcus Tullius Cicero and Publius Vergilius Maro were dead white males. I did realize that the conjunction of Bombs Away Attitudes and Abstract Niceness was an explosive blend—it led to bullet holes. But I never anticipated that I would hear so many Americans speak privately about leaving the country for good.
If baseball could be ruined and the creeks were fenced off and the schools were cerebrally inert, then nothing was secure—but then again, nothing ever had been. The lady’s red hair is now of a less striking shade. Willie Mays was never at home in Candlestick Park. The dialectic of history has emptied the 50’s of the implications of its elements and left behind for us some images and memories that we would retain—and too much more that we might as well consign to the inevitable oblivion toward which that decade hastens.