Friday, June 27, 2014

Half a Century Ago

Half a century ago:

There was hybridization and selective breeding, but no GMOs.

I was part of the largest demographic this country had ever seen; after WW II our forefathers really got down on it and produced The Baby Boom Generation. We had a strong influence upon American culture but were unaware of the fact, being caught up in our own world. Bombarded by sales pitches, often we were coaxed down incorrect paths that would lead to nothing, or to ends that would serve others. We were brainwashed into thinking that love was the answer for all of our ills when I was seventeen, but the radio in our barracks sometimes played songs that made me wonder if there weren't other parts of life at least as important if not of a greater meaning. Granted, one of my favorite ones in that summer of '64 was "Sealed with a Kiss" by Brian Hyland; it was a very romantic ballad that had a line I could identify with because of the impending date of our completion of training: "…meet in September, and seal it with a kiss." But there were other songs that did not toe the love line. In "It's All Over Now" Mick Jagger put out a message in keeping with those four words while Gale Garnett did a reprise of the Paris Cabaret scene of the late 1930s, wistfully singing, "We'll sing in the sunshine." Looking back, I'm glad that I had no one waiting for me. Strange mixture, in this de facto physical prison of the Navy I found feelings of emotional freedom that would have been diminished by having a girl on the outside.

With the Internet, today, many different versions of the truth can be quite a bit easier to find than they were in 1964, but I'm not sure if it's better now because there are scores of paid debunkers, whores who have as their employed task the job of ruining and destroying any and all evidences of establishment lying.

In that time of the summer virtually everything over the airwaves was A) the wrong stuff to want; B) lying; C) twisted; D) disinformation; E) deflections to something else; F) or focused in on some (safe) useless crap. And then came the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the excuse to snuff out the lives of about 58,000 American kids (and a whole lot more Asian ones). We had been brought up in the age of "duck and cover," and the experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis was fresh in the minds of every one of the recruits in company 366. We had H-bombs over our heads; the Cold War was raging, and America had a very powerful sense of raison d'ĂȘtre. Each of us had to deal with this atmosphere as best we could individually. If one of us were to think about these influences too much it would not lead to any positive pattern. Concentrated on too much, the result could lead one to cynicism and even nihilism; I'm tempted to characterize this negative in the words of Mel Brooks, in what he said about the time in England when the tales of Robin Hood became popular: "When things were rotten." But there was also a negative we all knew about. It was conveyed to us by our parents, who told us, by their experiences, that what they had gone through in the Great Depression had been terrible. Things could be worse – by far. In 1958 the U.S. had gone through a mini recession. Vietnam would be the eventual answer, but at a great cost. "Okay junkie, I'll get you the dope" (and he would only need more later).

A package of cigarettes cost twenty-once cents at the Navy exchange and a little more than thirty cents in town. A cup of coffee at most diners was a quarter but at the same time my pay, as a Seaman Apprentice, was in the range of thirty-two dollars every two weeks (so what the hell). And as another economic comparison, the minimum wage back in Omaha was a dollar twenty-five an hour.

When I left my family there were three television stations there; baseball was much more popular than it is now, and reefer was something that those nasty Mexican gangs smoked out in Los Angeles. The lid was still very much on the specific details of the assassination of John Kennedy. It wasn't just me: I can't say that in following a lack of knowledge that bliss results, but in checking alcohol consumption statistics for Omaha I found that in the sixties the locals consumed a lot of booze. It was, perhaps, a sign of the times that a few kids I knew weren't totally sure that pro wrestling was faked.

Most of the people I knew attended religious services at least once in a while. And in the years leading up to the millennium (not just the sixties), to be labeled a homosexual was a terrible stain to have on one's character. One of the recruits in our company was that way for sure: sometimes, on Sundays he would decorate himself with pinned handkerchiefs and dance on our center-table. How he got in, I'll never know, but I do know that the straight sailors were gnawed at by unspoken fear, and I was one of the ones who were scared of being turned over.

In the summer of that year San Diego was overrun with young men in uniform. The atmosphere of the Hollywood Theater was marvelous; it allowed this green bunch of swabbies an opportunity to harken back to the burlesque entertainment of the '30s and '40s, when sexual inferences and slight nudity, with suggestions, were considered to be at least slightly dirty. I looked around at the rest of the audience and saw nothing but sailors in white. Then, some weeks later, while at my next duty station, I went down to Tijuana where the hookers taught me that there is such a thing as bad sex.

In the early part of the decade Newton Minow had coined the term "a vast wasteland" to describe television in general. The words were accurate. But even during this period of drivel there were at least two exceptions: I thought that Naked City and East Side/West Side brought to the home a few excellent presentations of drama. Taken as a block, in TV there was not much for me to miss while at the Naval Training Center, however reading was another matter. During training there was no time for this, except for the manuals whose content we were tested on. But when I got to the air squadron after training once again I dove into my personal study program by checking out John Updike and John Steinbeck books from the base library. Also, in town I bought a book written by Henry Miller. It was total garbage from cover to cover but as a seventeen-year-old, I liked it that he used the word fuck a lot. Cool, during this time I learned the correct pronunciation for vagina too. As I look back at myself I see a horny, lonely, and uneducated kid, usually a little pissed off about the whole thing.