Saturday, November 23, 2013

Those Not-So-Simple Times

My guess is that most of us regard the decade we were born into, and possibly the one preceding it, as the most fascinating. How it was and what came just before that becomes our own misremembered fiction/memoir/history book. Inquiry seems to me a form of vitality, even reverence.

When news of Pearl Harbor issued through the radio speaker I was about 100 days shy of my ninth birthday. I had no idea we had gone through a Depression or Dust Bowl, the abominations in Germany and Spain,  Russian purges or the rape of Nanking. I knew nothing of lynchings, sit-down strikes or home-grown fascism.

Franklin Roosevelt’s voice was lodged in my head; it was what I imagined God sounded like and as such I idolized him. I do have a faint memory of wearing FDR buttons on a beanie cap in 1940 and despising Wendell Willkie for no reason other than he was opposing my deity.

For a child the world is necessarily simple. The craziness of our families is our concept of normalcy …until we know otherwise, that nobody and everybody was crazy in their own way.

I lived in the bubble of Forest Hills and Kew Gardens, a middle-class section in Queens. I experienced only faint expressions of anti-Semitism but no overt slurs or fist-fights that stick in my mind. Sixty years later I was told that this neighborhood was a destination for Jewish refugees. I had two close friends whose families had recently escaped from Germany but never thought of asking about their ordeals.

It is as if I was barely conscious. Looking back through the fuzzy lens I see a montage of composite moments, juxtaposed, merged, imagined, and misunderstood. One sculpts their scraps into a manageable and simplistic universe. 

By the end of my first decade the real world of war bonds, rationing, air-raid drills and V-mail had to be reconciled with movie images of zany mad-cap romps and girl-next-door romances. I knew nobody who wore a tuxedo or contended with cattle rustlers. We had some sorting out to do.

This has become a life-long process….separating or rather comprehending how competing versions of reality inter-penetrate. Humanity is a messy business. Just when you think you’ve got a handle it slips away. A piece of the puzzle doesn’t fit. Franco helps Jews to escape Nazi Germany. Eisenhower, of all people, once said, Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. Roosevelt vetoes the bonus promised to World War I veterans (but is over-ridden by Congress). The 1939 in-coming Princeton class votes Hitler the greatest person in the world (Einstein comes in second).

By the late forties I thought I knew everything which is akin to knowing close to nothing. For sure my core beliefs were in tact and we had the best songs but there was more to be nuanced. Villains have a claim on redemption, heroes have warts and our future leaders are revealed to be the most misguided among us. The early urge to re-make the world into neatly organized divisions shadows us for a lifetime. Keats, I believe, got it right. The ability to hold in our head life’s ambiguities and live the question is a noble state.

Rereading this page I see how I’ve wandered afield from my starting point. In keeping with where I’ve arrived I’m not going to change a thing.     

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