15 November 2009

Calling all in transit

Recently, the spouse, the daughter and I watched the Mad Men episode that covered the events of November 22, 1963. There is an infamous family story about the spouse, who was a little more than 2 years old, running around the house, repeating, "Kennedy shot. Kennedy shot." over and over. The evening we watched the program, the daughter turned to me and asked if I remembered JFK's assassination.

I looked back at her bemused and said, "No."

She can be forgiven, I suppose, because ancient history is ancient history, and parents are, of course, ancient history.

Still, cultural memory is a strange thing. I've seen the films made that day and in the subsequent days so many times that I can almost believe that I did witness the events that unfolded. Years ago, when we visited the spouse's brother while he was doing his residency at Parkland in Dallas, C. insisted that we all go to the museum at the old book depository. It was really quite eerie.

It's never been easy for me to make sense of the 1960s. Though I was born during that decade, I was a child of the 1970s who came of age in the 1980s. In college, I took a class called Literature and Film of the '60s, taught by a Brit who was completely enamored of the U.S. culture of the 1960s. I slogged through an awful lot of mostly awful '60s literature and some rather eye-opening '60s cinema. I understood more about the decade by the time I was done, but little that helped me to put myself in that place. Mad Men has been more useful in that regard, even though it serves as more of a filter. The series starts in 1961, and my own birth was a ways off yet, but it's the memory of a green glass ashtray, or the sheer volume of cigarette smoke that used to circulate everywhere. The drinking. When I was really young, I remember my parents drinking martinis. I loved green olives, and I coveted the olives in their martinis...until I tasted one after it came out of the martini. Suffice to say I have never taken to martinis. I never experienced anything like Betty's "Around the World" dinner party but I remember similar menus from reading my mother's cookbooks as a child. Somehow, I was just waiting for Betty to bust out the tomato aspic.

(Who in God's name invented aspic? Talk about an abomination. My mother used to serve it--with cucumbers and celery in it! And lemon wedges on the side--and Waldorf salad, the very thought of which is still enough to make me gag. Apples, celery and mayonnaise. Yeesh. Stewed tomatoes and zucchini. Okra.)

When explaining aspects of my own childhood to my children, I am very much aware of how difficult it was for me to parse the experience of my parents with what I knew to be history. My father was a World War II veteran, but he served for only a very short period time, at the tail end of the Pacific war. My mother was a first grader when World War II ended, so she had as much recall of it as I do of Vietnam, which is virtually nothing. When my brother and I were kids, Hogan's Heroes was our reference point for World War II (isn't war funny? Damn, those Nazis were such cards!) until we were old enough to read the Time Life World War II series (talk about your unsanitized history. Dead bodies everywhere in those books. No one pulled any punches in those days). By the time we were in junior high, our school was renting old newsreels from the 1940s, which went a lot further in explaining how the war played out than anything any living person was telling us. And yet, one day I did the math and saw the barbarism that predated my birth by a generation. It changed the way I looked at the world and my fellow humans forever.

What I find interesting and perplexing is how the 20th anniversary of the Berlin wall coming down has simply bounced off the kids' consciousness. Although they are aware of the big wars and big moments in history, something that affected their parents so profoundly as did the Cold War just doesn't seem to register. I may not remember the 1960s as such, but I remember the Threat of Communism and the Iron Curtain. The old Radio Free Europe commercials did nothing but convince my preschool self that a giant curtain made of battleship chains hung between free and Communist Europe.

Go listen to some good music: "Radio Free Europe" from the album Murmur by REM. I got goosebumps the first time I heard this song, and could clearly see the Iron Curtain I'd always visualized as a little girl.

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