When the epitaph is etched on our generation, I imagine it will hint at our growing desperation:
We lived a few good years at the end of the time of plenty
Knowing it came at the expense of so many.
In the long and listless hours of my unexpected freedom, I try to piece this puzzle back together with testimonies of the time. I scour history books and devour documentaries on all the wars that were: Patton, people’s republics, the last helicopter out of Saigon.
Pause. Rewind. In the darkness of my apartment, the bombs forever blister the Normandy coast, an unknown life hurled into the air again and again
and again and -
My cats roll up to the hissing radiator, and fall asleep on the floor.
Of all the places for a baby to be born in the summer of 1939, few were better than Mount Pleasant, Michigan. The bombs never fell there, but the trees waved green. That other stuff was so far away, it arrived in northern Michigan stained only with ink.
“Mount Pleasant? You grew up in a town called Mount Pleasant?”
My father looks surprised. “I never really thought about it that way before.”
A few years earlier a woman married a man in secret, so that she could still draw her full teacher’s salary. When it finally came time for them to be together, they settled near the banks of the Chippewa River, and had a son: David.
Forty-two years later, through acts of choice and happenstance, he would be my father.
“For all it means to me,” I tell him, “the Thirties may as well be an imaginary number.”
My father is a good man, and a kind man, and someone who has led me further to what’s right than anyone I’ve known. But he is also fascinating to me, as the emissary of a life that is now so impossible to know: a white boyhood in Midwestern America, between the wars.
They still make movies out of this stuff:
Trees, and treehouses, and BB guns and a dog named Skippy, and would you believe it? Skippy could climb up to the treehouse. It’s true! And Schwinn bicycles and Captain Marvel comics underneath the covers, and penny candy and a job in the family store, and mother’s fresh-baked pies and hitch-hiking across the state before anyone knew to be afraid. And Red Flyer wagons and…
“I really had a Red Flyer wagon!” my father chortles, hands on the wheel of his bright red Toyota Prius.
I know Dad, you told me.
I realize there’s no point to this. Some days, when the silence of it all sets in, I write to remind myself I can.
No, no, there is a point, and the point is this: there is a great mythology of a life that belonged to such a narrow place and time. A Midwestern American boyhood, told and re-told in books and stage and film and song, and all the winsome lassitude of those endless summer days.
Well, my father owned it.
“Do you realize that?” I tell him. “All the millions of people who have been taught that this is the ideal childhood they should have wanted, and you actually had it?”
I realize that great mythologies are never quite the same in living them. And I realize that mythology is twisted by the lens which captured its shape, and that this one is blindly male and white and could only be that way. And I realize that childhood dreams bloomed in other places and were equally sublime, but -
But it’s all different now, isn’t it?
“You’d never teach Skippy how to climb into the treehouse now,” I told him. “You’d be too busy playing video games.”
So this is what I believe: the ice caps are melting and the seas are choking on our spill. The air is thick and hot and getting hotter, and the winds are all in turmoil. And our food is sick. And our forests are sick. And our economies are not built to last, so these shocks are the desperation squeezes of a society fast running out of gas.
Depressing, isn’t it?
My dad is an environmentalist, I suspect mostly for his kids. He worries. He worries about climate change, and the dying oceans, and all the million things we’re doing that our species cannot well survive. He worries about the inheritance left to my generation from his which came before: scarcity, depletion, the whispers of wars.
“It’ll be alright,” I shrug, every time this stuff comes up. “Somehow, we’ll find a way.”
I can never tell who I’m trying to convince the most: my dad, or me.
Almost every time I see him, I press him with more questions about those years between the wars: but what was it like? And what did you know?
“Well, let me tell you about this one fishing trip with my father,” he says, and I get irrationally excited because I’ve never heard this story before -
And I realize then, quivering under all this sad and hopeful weight, that I’m waxing nostalgic for a life that could never exactly happen, anymore. And one for me that never was.
A few good years at the end of the time of plenty…