Veterans Memorial Highway, Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Veterans Memorial Playing Field. The veterans named the Long Island landscape. World War II was assumed; it was the war. The memorials didn’t talk about Civil War veterans or Korean War veterans. This was their island to make after the war.
World War II was not even 10 years distant when my parents moved into their new house, and only 15 years past when I started school. The war towered over us. We played war in our backyards and in the woods, mimicking the sounds of shooting and explosions that we had seen on the TV show Combat! We had plastic rifles and bazookas and grenades and plastic helmets with plastic camouflage leaves. At age 6 we asked each other if we were going to join the Army, Air Force, or the Navy, the way kids in private schools must sort between Harvard and Yale. Fighting in a World War just seemed like something grown-ups did. For one birthday party I took seven friends to watch the new movie about D-Day.
“They’ll never stop fighting that war,” my father said.
Two suitcases in the basement were the only clues about my parents’ lives before they moved into their new house. With the exception of some furniture from their apartment, this was all they had taken from their city lives.
By the time I came upon the suitcases, they were dusty, sunken relics; one lying with its side caved in. In my father’s suitcase was his high school class picture in a sepia tone (Monroe High. School paper: The Monroe Doctrine) his framed diploma, some books of engineering tables and drawings from an early postwar job refitting part of the Panama Canal. His Air Force uniform was hanging, uncovered, under the stairs.
My mother’s suitcase had some schoolbook exercises in her perfect penmanship, and a scrapbook of pictures of movie stars that she had clipped out of magazines. I’d heard of some of them, but many others are remembered now only in scrapbooks like these. She had made this scrapbook in her early teens. It was the dream book of a child in the Great Depression.
A slim gathering from their former lives. I asked my father once about the suitcases; why weren’t there more? He said, “When we moved out here, that’s when our lives began.”
The house I grew up in had the bare basics of suburban-hood: one picture window, three bedrooms, one bathroom, kitchen, dining room opening to the living room, unfinished basement, narrow garage for one car, small backyard and slim side yards – there was only 12 feet between houses. The house was about 850 square feet, half the size of the average house built twenty years later, houses with more space in the “entrance foyer” than our dining room.
In 1954 my father and mother followed the Northern State Parkway until it ran out. They got off at the next-to-last exit that had opened, about 40 miles from the city. They bought a new house in a development on flat potato fields, a large tract of twisting streets grandly named Valmont. There was nothing much around but farms. My father drove his father out from the Bronx to see the house. Long before they had arrived, his father said, “I always wanted you to have a house in the country – but in this country.”
The house cost $14,000. No shrubs, no trees, no lawns at that point. Telephone poles, wires, and each house with a TV antenna clamped to the chimney. They were like houses set down in a sandbox. Between the houses you could see a long way across the flatness.
A friend at work told him to look at houses there. My parents liked what they saw and put down a deposit. One day after work he went to check on the construction. He was in the bathroom when he thought: “I didn’t order black and green tile. I’m going to find that builder.” He was in the house next door.
After my parents bought the house they had just $38 left in their joint account. But it wasn’t a “stretch” he said. They could cover the mortgage.
Their neighbors were Irish and Italian, children of immigrants in the first house any of them had ever owned. Telephone line workers, custodians, factory workers. My dad was an engineer. There were many other engineers, a few cops, teachers, and one doctor, an anomaly, who it was said, had helped many people. There were many Catholics, Protestants of course, a smattering of Jews. All white, all married. Years later there were a couple of widows and a rumor of a divorce far off, many streets away.
They were mostly blue collar, working class, but they did not think of themselves that way, I’m sure. They had a house, a yard, a car, a mortgage. They were middle class.
They planted lawns, bought lawn mowers, had very few tools. Each Father’s Day led to the Sears hardware department. My father and the other fathers “tuned up” their own cars working in the driveway, gapped the spark plugs, used a “timing light,” an arcane procedure that often ended up with several men leaning in under the hood, an automotive priesthood.
My parents moved in just before Thanksgiving. All the relatives came for Thanksgiving, even though they didn’t yet have a refrigerator. They kept all the food on the back steps and a cat came along and dined on the turkey, a story that has become a Thanksgiving tradition.
The houses in the neighborhood were sparsely furnished: One black and white television; one phone, black with a dial. Later on you could add a “princess” phone (with a choice of colors!) on an “extension line.” One car – Ford, GM or Chrysler – even if there were two drivers. One family had a Rambler and another a Studebaker, slightly odd, like buying week-old bread. A couple of families had two cars. Only a few moms worked. It was a binary world: Work or home, Coke or Pepsi, Democrat or Republican, Free World or Communism, Christ or not, White or not.
Small houses, but each big enough, and bigger really than their square foot measure. The defining measure is in those few feet between the houses. Each house stood alone, a miniature ranch or estate. If you had offered prospective buyers a bigger house, but one that was joined to its neighbors, most people would opt for a smaller, independent house. House hunting they had all weighed the options – hardwood floors and floor plans and schools which were mostly unbuilt – but it’s those few feet of separation that they were buying.
In best-selling books, sociologists were quick to damn the barracks-like rows of suburban houses with their wrist-thin spindly maples, but they missed the promise of having your own place and your own yard. We lived under a cloud of approbation. We had been judged banal, ticky-tacky, conformist. All that striving and dreaming, mortgages and car payments were, in the eyes of the critics and sociologists, just blight.
They all started out together. They were all learning about being homeowners. You couldn’t call “the super” to fix something. You called Dick next door or Lester across the street or Murray around the corner for help. Some of them were real “handymen” – the highest accolade -- they could fix anything.
If there were a domestic emergency, Frances or Virginia would step in, help with the kids, or dinner. It was routine then; it seems remarkable now, this fine art of keeping out of other people’s business but being there in good times and bad. They were good neighbors. It’s like the front lawns, each distinct, yet joining together.
There were kids everywhere. Kids playing tag, or hide and seek, or stick ball, or riding bikes, playing until dark. On summer nights the neighbors would be out, gardening, tinkering, visiting; my dad and Lester sitting at the head of the driveway in lawn chairs drinking a couple of beers, the moths thick under the streetlight. Hot nights, all windows open.
There were big parades on Memorial Day and for the start of the Little League season. Little Leaguers marching for blocks and blocks in wavy rows, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Webelos and Cub Scouts, Brownies, marching bands, baton twirlers, fire engines and police cars. Kids marching to please adults. The men didn’t march; they’d had enough of that.
40 Miles -- The Commute to “The City”
The Long Island Railroad, morning and evening.
AM: The hour of aftershave and mouthwash, toothpaste and deodorant, perfume and scented soaps. The smell of coffee and the sweet inkyness of the morning newspapers. Crisp, dry-cleaned shirts. Polished shoes. Ties knotted.
PM: Hour of ambiguity. The army returns, exhausted. The smell of sweat, beer, Manhattan grit, stale coffee and cigarette breath.
The Bar Car: Dashing Dan – once the railroad’s commuter hero – became Desperate Dan. The Bar Car was jam-packed and thick with smoke. Rapid-fire drinking, like a football team rushing the ball up the field in the closing minutes. Here the “two-minute drill” was a rush to drink, to smoke and to drink some more. I had seen the bar car a few times on trips to the city: I didn’t want to grow up to be any of those guys.
New Houses (1200 Square Feet)
There were still many farms around. Every farm became a “development.” The new houses were a little larger, had an extra room or two, another garage. But it was all the same, like going from a Ford to a Plymouth. Only the details differed.
There were new model homes out on the Vets Highway. They were mobbed every Sunday. People visited these houses just as people in other parts of the country take a Sunday drive to the mountains. They enjoyed the view; they liked to think about the possibilities, liked to consider “moving up.” Back home a few might even sit down and “crunch the numbers” to see if they could carry a bigger mortgage. (Or “make a bigger nut” as the commuters on the train said.)
People also turned out to see the new cars when they arrived each fall at the dealers’ showrooms. When someone came home with a new car, the neighbors came over to admire it, everyone gathering around on the driveway, as if they expected the car to speak. The owner would open the doors so everyone could take in that new car smell. He’d raise the hood and maybe take his neighbors for a ride down to the Carvel. (No ice cream in the car!)
“See the USA in Your Chevrolet”
Vacations were car trips. Many people went to visit relatives Upstate or in the Midwest. No one got on an airplane to go anywhere. In Junior High School I had one friend whose family flew to England one summer. That was a big trip and we marveled at their tales of the exotic Brits.
I only had one friend whose family had forded the Mississippi and driven coast to coast. Driving that far with a back seat stuffed with squirming kids took some fortitude (Are we there yet?). With open windows – few cars had air conditioning -- you baked in the August heat and the road dirt. For diversion there was only the push-button AM car radio to pull in the local stations. The interstate highways were still under construction. Old roads like parts of Route 66 were in their last, shabby days. Breakdowns were common enough, as was getting lost, losing maps, and looking for gas stations at night in shuttered towns with the needle on empty. My friend’s car had overheated in Death Valley, and Kansas had almost swallowed them alive. When I asked them about crossing those flat states, they said that I just wouldn’t understand.
But mostly people stuck close to home through the long summer. Vacations for working dads were usually only two weeks, and no one we knew went away on the weekends. On the long evenings the whole family might go to play miniature golf or to the driving range, or in the heat surrender the family meal – meat and overcooked limp green beans – to a kid’s appetite: burgers and fries, pizza, Chinese food, or hot dogs steamed in beer, which was one summer’s fad.
Summer meant hanging around with friends, going to the beach, going to the movies. (Some theaters still hung out banners boasting in snow-capped letters, “Air Conditioned!”) No one I knew went to summer camp, or had any kind of lessons beyond swimming lessons. We were left to ourselves.
The Nightly News
Everyone watched the nightly news: Cronkite or Huntley & Brinkley. There were about seven TV stations: three networks, two local, “Educational TV” and UHF, which no one ever saw. No need for a remote. You walked over to the TV, which was usually housed in a big “Colonial” hutch just like the Founding Fathers had, and twisted a dial. Those hutches and cabinets housed a glowing city of tubes. The television would have to “warm up,” we said, and when you turned it off, the picture shrank to a dot as if it were rocketing off to the far recesses of the solar system.
When the President addressed the nation, all three networks carried it, and usually returned to “regular programming” after a brief, strenuously objective summary. When a show was popular it wallpapered the culture; everyone talked about it. Johnny Carson was on late, 11:30, but his jokes were common currency the next day.
Most everyone read a newspaper: Newsday for purported liberals, the more conservative Long Island Press, or The Suffolk Sun in the morning with off-register color comics. In the city they read different newspapers. Most everyone subscribed to the same magazines: Life or Look, Time or Newsweek (or even US News & World Report, the Studebaker of the newsweeklies), TV Guide, Readers Digest, National Geographic, Popular Science or the lowly Popular Mechanics, and the ladies magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal with “Can this marriage be saved?” which I read closely. It was a rare patch of private life breaking out in public. You only saw it in a few places like Dear Abby or Ask Ann Landers. The culture was male, made up of official statements by experts. The personal wasn’t yet political; it was still personal.
Free World or Godless Communism
In my earliest school memories, our teacher is telling us that “we might be attacked today” or she is saying that we were practicing an attack, a distinction lost on a six year old. This may have been part of the “air raid drills” we had in the jumpy aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We’d be lined up in the halls facing the wall. It felt like each and every one of us was being punished for doing something wrong.
And then President Kennedy was shot and somebody shot somebody else. School was closed. We played all day. Not an adult anywhere moved. They were slumped in front of the TV. I’d go in and out of my friends’ houses and it was the same scene: their parents sitting silently, sitting motionless as if they had come to rest at the bottom of the sea.
Assassinations became a regular thing. We’d be out on the playground for recess and somebody would come out and lower the flag to half-mast again. What happened? we asked. It’s Martin, it’s Bobby, we were told. Not much was explained to us. Our teachers didn’t understand it either.
The Cold War permeated everything, like the smell of gasoline on clothes.
Cuba was a dagger pointed at America. Soviet leaders were crude men who rapped a shoe on the desk at the UN shouting, “We will bury you.” They still wore hats and drove out-of-date funereal black cars. They had parades to review rows and rows of missiles and tanks rolling by. We had parades with floats made of roses and inflatable cartoon characters sailing down Manhattan’s streets to Macy’s. They wanted to dominate the world. We only wanted people to be happy, to vote, to have a house and a car and a Coke.
In the movies we saw, the Russians were Vodka-drinking oafs. They’d swagger and bluster, only to stir up their Vodka-loaded selves too much and fall down. We were lean Gary Coopers and Gregory Pecks. Pragmatic, at ease, with a sense of humor. All these movies were Westerns in different costumes. The Russians were the black hats come to town. This is how it looked to child in Cuba Hill Elementary School. (It was built on a hill named for Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders.)
Cuba Hill was a one-story red-brick, flat-roofed school. Inside the cinderblock walls were painted dark red and that chalky “eye ease” green that you still see at motor vehicle bureaus and old hospitals.
We sang My Country ‘Tis of Thee every morning in the first and second grade. My country,' tis of thee, sweet land of liberty…. We sang Freedom Isn’t Free --You have to fight to pay the price -- at our grade school moving-up exercises along with The Impossible Dream. I think our class picked that one.
And this was where a teacher in the fourth grade, pointing at a map of the USSR, said, “You can see how they would want to expand.” After class, I asked her: couldn’t you point at a map of the USA and say the same thing? The next day she corrected herself in front of the class.
FBI at the Door
One summer day two FBI agents came to the door. They wanted to ask my mother a few questions.
My father was an engineer, along with about half of Long Island, and he did defense work (ditto). On the Cold War checklists his father came up as someone suspicious to be watched. He had been born in Russia (maybe) and was a member of a communist union. Actually, he was born in Lithuania or Poland or Russia – that flat corner that kept changing hands. He walked across Europe to escape the Cossacks and the draft, and came to America before World War I. When he worked as a tailor he had joined the union of necessity, which was the Workmen’s Circle, socialists said to be left of left. He himself was a man of the prayer book and the pinochle deck. I never heard him talk politics. He didn’t let my father join the Boy Scouts because he hated uniforms, but that’s his only political statement that I know of. He also once scolded my father for missing a vote. “You don’t know what you’ve got here,” he had said. “Where I came from you couldn’t vote. It’s a sin not to vote.”
What did my mother tell the FBI agents? Did she say that yes, he had been a tailor and he had sewn her some beautiful hats? Or did she say, yes, you’re on to us: Immigrants are born in other countries.
The FBI agents impressed us kids. Short haircuts, suits, thin ties. Just like the TV show. We regarded them as if they had the powers of superheroes. They probably knew everything already, but there was nothing much to know around our neighborhood. It was just cool to see them.
Christ or Not
When my parents moved in, they put a mezuzah up on the doorframe at the front and back doors. A mezuzah houses a small scroll with the central prayer of morning and evening services, the Shema Yisrael: "Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” The mezuzah was small, no more than three inches tall. You could go in and out of the house for years and never notice it, and yet some of my parents’ Jewish friends told them not to put it up.
This was still an era of widespread, accepted anti-Semitism. In the Army Airforce my father was in Florida for training, being marched past hotels with signs that said: No Jews allowed. He and his friends had at one point or another been called “Christ Killers” and other names. By the 1950s the name-calling was fading, but anti-Semitism lived on cloaked in quotas. Elite schools limited the Jews they admitted; many jobs, it was supposed to be understood, were for Christians only. And it was understood that Jews didn’t live in some neighborhoods and towns. “Are there any members of our tribe there?” a Jew would ask another. The ghetto walls had fallen, but there are many ways to build new walls. I’m sure that was on my parents’ minds when they were looking for a house.
In Hebrew school our teachers were still reeling from the Holocaust, which was then not even 20 years past. They hadn’t found the words to talk about it, to teach it. Without any introduction or background they made us watch the unedited, black and white documentary footage from Auschwitz and Buchenwald: Emaciated prisoners staring right into the camera, piles of naked, skeletal bodies, piles of shoes and hair and teeth. Some teachers would say nothing after this, some would yell at us. For what? For “assimilating,” for not being Jewish enough.
One teacher challenged us: Are you a Jewish American or an American Jew? The message was: Don’t get too comfortable. Jews always have to leave. You’re not home; you’re in exile. We were 8, 9, 10 years old, being sent to more school after school. We just wanted to go outside and play.
White or Not
We had a practice race riot in the third grade, a reenactment of the nightly news. In all of Cuba Hill, among maybe 800 kids in six grades and kindergarten, there was only one black kid, Kim. He was talented on stage, and sometimes starred in our plays. I knew him and we were friendly with his family. He’s gone to Hollywood where he has appeared in many films and hundreds of TV shows. He also writes screenplays and commercials.
One day at recess kids started linking arms with other kids. I looked up and a big chain of kids was chasing down Kim. I don’t know how it started; I was one of maybe only three or four kids on the playground who was not involved. All of a sudden, parts of the playground emptied out, basketballs and kickballs were abandoned, and the chase was on. Kim took off running hard. The flying wedge of kids cornered him. He stood his ground and demanded to know who started this. When that kid stepped forward, Kim punched him in the eye. The teachers raced in to break it up.
For some reason, it fell to the gym teacher to lecture us. He didn’t talk about race and respect, or about civil rights and equality. He tried to scare us straight with stories about Sing Sing, the famous prison where, even if we could get over the walls, we couldn’t escape across the electrified railroad tracks. If we didn’t straighten up, we were all going to Sing Sing. His lecture was a masterpiece of stupidity.
It was on a par with the lecture we got every year before we started gymnastics. Each gym teacher, year after year, told us about some kid who wore a ring while on the parallel bars and lost a finger. “Where are all these four-fingered kids?” my skeptical friend asked me. “Have you ever seen one?” And what kid wore a ring then?
Our other teachers took a more sweeping approach to what had happened on the playground and to anything else we did. They told us, collectively, that we were the worst. We were not as good as the kids years before. We were all guilty. If two or three kids threw snowballs at a school bus or a teacher, we were all guilty. So it went. With each such roundup, their authority ebbed.
My mind was elsewhere – on the moon and the stars. I was caught up in the “Space Race.” Other boys knew baseball players and their statistics; I knew all about the original seven astronauts. While they collected baseball cards, I collected cards with satellites on them (Nimbus, Echo, ISOS-I). I ordered the NASA Facts publications from the Government Printing Office. For 10 or 15 cents you got the dream of space flight. I had a little floppy record of Kennedy’s speech committing us to “fly the moon.” It had come in National Geographic. I ran my own space program: I flew model rockets in competitions and was nationally ranked in the top 20 for a time. I had the history of the Space Race lined up in models all around my room. With my paper route money I bought a telescope and joined a group of amateur astronomers.
Anytime I was home during a launch, I watched it. I could imitate the staticy Mission Control transmissions of Chris Craft. One of the Gemini astronauts had a son about my age who was just learning to ride his bicycle. Coverage of the family was part of each launch, as if the whole family and their pets were being shot into orbit. Our teacher would ask us to pray for the astronauts when they were circling the earth high above Cuba Hill.
I watched one “countdown” while lying on my back, astronaut-style, with my legs up on a hassock, trying to eat the “Space Food” I’d gotten for my birthday. (It tasted like freeze-dried Melba toast.)
The moon landing was the big event, maybe even bigger on Long Island. The LEM – the Lunar Excursion Module -- was made on Long Island, and often starred in Newsday and Life magazine. The ungainly LEM was our hometown hero.
We went across the street to the Schwartz’s to watch the first steps on the moon. The lunar pictures were a play of shadows, but their TV made it worse. They had a black and white TV so fuzzy that Ozzie & Harriet looked like they were being beamed from the moon. At the crucial, epoch-making moment, with Neil Armstrong starting down the ladder to set foot on the Sea of Tranquility, Mrs. Schwartz left the room and returned with a hat she had just bought. She and my mother were discussing it – a hat! They were chattering away: Isn’t it nice! Yes isn’t it nice! It’s a little different. Yes, don’t you think so? I can wear it with my yellow dress, you know the one….
I leaned closer to the TV, practically fell into it, but I could hardly hear Mission Control.
Finally, I excused myself and ran across the street, back to our black and white TV – aware, as I crossed the street, that way, way above us men were on the moon. The space program did that; it lifted your sight.
I was 12 years old and I thought that I had seen the beginning – “the dawn of a new era.” We’d be going to the planets soon and beyond. The moon landing was one of the biggest things ever in history. That’s what I told a man I met in Macy’s. I was looking at a big poster congratulating the astronauts. He came up and asked me what I thought about it all and I told him. He was wearing a suit and a tie and he really listened to what I said. The moon landing was the first really good news in awhile. Everyone was talking about it. The moon was a celebrity that summer. 1969 was a year so turbulent we had to leave earth to find a Sea of Tranquility.
The Sixties Happened Anyway
The trees grew up and the kids grew up and another war came along, one that wasn’t a declared war but a “conflict” in official-speak – The Vietnam Conflict. Vietnam confounded the veterans. All of it: why we were there, why we didn’t fight to win, why the kids wouldn’t fight, why they did drugs and listened to “that music.”
Despite their best efforts, the Sixties happened anyway. It arrived in big shocks on the nightly news and locally, delivered by teenagers doing stupid things, like holding up a pack of cigarettes to a television camera. “Lark,” a new cigarette brand, advertised “Show us your Lark pack” with candid shots of men and women in the street holding up their Larks. One day the cameras rolled down Elwood Road and a high school student, caught up in the excitement, waved his cigarette pack. I don’t recall if this was broadcast, maybe it was, but soon the alarms were sounded: Our teens are smoking! A big school district meeting was held. Parents stood up to say this has to stop.
The Lark incident was upstaged a few years later when a teacher approached two students who were smoking just off school grounds, and discovered a “marijuana cigarette” in the words of the school district newsletter. More alarms, more meetings. An expert from the police department burned some hemp so that parents could learn to recognize the smell on clothes or coming from under closed bedroom doors.
The schools flew into a frenzy of drug education. I was in junior high school. I learned that marijuana was sometimes called “Mary Jane” and sometimes “Reefer” and that it led to harder drugs and “anti-social behavior.” It seemed that after one puff you could find yourself in a few weeks tying a hose around your arm and shooting “smack” in a flophouse. Or you could be derailed by taking “uppers” and “downers” that came in a rainbow of colors and had more nicknames than an old baseball team -- just “go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall.”
Everything was a drug. Some kids were sniffing Pam – the cooking spray -- and some kids were sniffing glue. How many kids? No one I knew or heard about. It just made it difficult to buy glue to build model rockets, airplanes and cars. You were presumed to be guilty.
The “marijuana cigarette” incident was in turn overshadowed by the protests to end the war. (Vietnam was the war now.) One morning in May 1971, when I was almost 14 years old, the students at the high school joined a national day of protest. They sat down and refused to go to class. The bells rang and they refused to budge. The school principal threatened that this would go on their “permanent record.” If they had already been admitted to college, that college would be notified. The students stood up and marched out of the school and down the road to school district offices. They had broken the cardinal rule: children were not be seen or heard. The strike leaders were rounded up and brought into the principal’s office; parents were called.
I was in junior high school, far from the action, but the walkout was avidly debated, as it was at home among my parents’ friends. The school district meeting that followed was anguished. Many parents wanted to know who put the kids up to this protest, as if their children couldn’t watch the nightly news and see what was going on. They were looking for someone to blame.
The Angry Vet
He came to our junior high school to tell us about the war. He had been an art student in our school. He had great talent and in one quick hop became a highly-paid illustrator in New York. Those languorous sketches of the women in the full-page Lord & Taylor ads in the Times? He drew those. He was a young man with a great career. He was drafted. Wounded, he came home unable to draw and paint. He was still in his twenties with his entire, reduced life ahead of him. All the teachers knew him, and they brought our Social Studies class to see him in the auditorium. He was on an anti-recruiting mission. He was telling us to wake up; we were going to Vietnam.
When the bell rang for the next class and we started to move, he fixed us in his gaze: Punch the kid next to you. He’d be gone. Killed in battle. I think this is what he said. Across all these years, I remember the intensity of his gaze, a laser shot at us. I think that he sat a little hunched over on the lip of the stage with his limp right arm in his lap – I’m not sure – but I remember that look in his eyes. His anger was white hot.
I heard that he killed himself. Finished the job.
One of those summers during the war, a man – a regular lawn-mower-pushing, 9-to-5, family man -- cracked and painted Clay Pitts Road in big letters: STOP THE WAR. People were enraged. Things were spiraling out of control: you don’t deface a county road. He was facing jail time. This may have been after Kent State in May 1970, or it may have been the same summer that someone found LSD in the sugar containers at Adventureland, a small amusement park whose name was not meant as an ironic commentary on the American roller coaster ride of that decade.
40 Miles II – Coming Home
The train platforms of Penn Station are the gates to the dream of sylvan peace. On these grimy platforms in the humid-on-humid air of the summer commute, ties are loosened, and the workday ends with a push to grab a seat.
The father of a friend of ours told us this story. He worked in the city with a man who was going to quit his job any day, “quit the rat race.” He talked eagerly of doing it. He was going to join a small company close to home. He thought the small company had great prospects. One evening he dropped dead right on the platform. Heart attack.
He suffered the emblematic commuters’ death – his life literally commuted – in the original meaning of the word – shortened.
This story has been passed from father to son, a cautionary tale, like something that would have been in Death of a Commuter if Arthur Miller had written it. The old ghost Ben returning to say: Never die on a train platform, son.
40 Miles III – The Commute between Today and Yesterday
One morning when I was in my twenties our neighbor across the street gave me a lift to the train station. I was visiting my parents. It was very early and I was still sleepy and would have been happy to sit in a drowsy stupor, but he wanted to talk. He was still upset about the anti-war protests, which were more than a decade past. He wanted answers. I had been too young during the protest years, but I wore my hair long, so he must have thought I knew. This wasn’t the first time I have been asked to explain protests that I had no part in.
Why did they destroy property? Why did they spit on the flag? he asked.
Where to start? I explained that they were trying to stop the great horrors the United States was committing in Vietnam. It was odd to be discussing this so quietly. I remember the anger, the complete miscommunication. A kid would be talking about how we were burning huts and bombing the jungle and an adult would answer: why don’t you get a haircut?
Our quieter discussion ended up in much the same place. But was it necessary to burn the flag? he asked. To wear a flag on the seat of your pants? There was no reconciling Veterans Island with the America on the nightly news.
This is a good country he was saying. He had fought in a war. He had done his part; why couldn’t these kids do their part? They had it very good.
And they did have it good, all those kids who were Little Leaguers just moments ago, who had sung My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty morning after morning. Why did they spit on the flag?
To him they had destroyed the peace he had helped to win. They might as well have smashed his picture window and dug up his lawn. They might as well have ridden rings around his house, wrecking the front and back and the sideyards. You can’t date it precisely, but somewhere in among all the protests, riots, and assassinations, in the smell of pot on their sons and daughters, Veterans Memorial Island came to an end in heartbreak.
There are many memorials to the world war the veterans won, but to me those slim sideyards, those few feet between the houses, are the largest memorial. They started out as peace parks; block after block, mile after mile of watered, weeded, fertilized, and mowed peace parks.