A World Apart: The Generations of ’69.
The summer of 1969 is the family’s first back in the Chicago suburbs.
To his dismay, the young man’s family has left lively and liberal Ann Arbor to return to the stodgy conservatism of Chicago’s western suburbs. He is 16 years old and entering his junior year of high school.
He walks home from school now along the tree-lined park that borders the village’s small lake. The park is usually uncrowded, a quiet refuge for runners and romantics on autumn lopes along grassy trails or leisurely afternoon walks. In winter, the icy wonder of Lake Ellyn, with its community boathouse and crowds of bundled-up ice skaters, fills visitors like a breath deeply drawn.
Summer is different. Then the tall, old oak trees and shaded lakeside pathways comfort those who wander in the summer sun. But the summer wanderers are fewer and slower, taking the measure of the outdoors more cautiously in the heat and humidity.
It’s an idyllic setting, a kind of Jimmy Stewart-esque version of the quintessential American town. But it is not quite the wonderful life. Every day the news brings horrific reports of the war being fought in Vietnam. The backdrop to this serene, upper-middle class world are body counts, napalm, carpet-bombing, and the incessant realization of far-away slaughter.
For many of his generation, Vietnam festers on their psyches, gnawing away at everything they’ve been taught to believe about the goodness of the American way.
Instead of democratic virtue, he sees hypocrisy and support for a corrupt, murderous, dictatorship thousands of miles away. Instead of democratic truths, he sees official lies and meaningless suffering and the arrogance of power. Instead of individual freedom and opportunity, he sees a military draft with the power to sweep young men up with cold indifference and possibly dump them in an early grave.
Instead of peace, he sees killing everywhere.
As a teenager, the war slowly corrodes much of what he had been taught to believe about his country. His two years in Ann Arbor had changed his way of thinking. The habit of reading began to take root then. Now, he devours any literature he can find on war and history, politics and philosophy. He reads Henry Thoreau and quietly decides he is a pacifist.
Gradually, the young man also begins to express his opinions less tentatively. This leads to increasing arguments with his father. Where he hears in the peace movement a stirring, humane chorus, his father hears only unpatriotic cacophony.
The politics of the Vietnam War become a kind of litmus test for his personal relationship with his father, and not only him. In his youthful fervor, he is not yet versed in the art of diplomatic persuasion. One evening he informs his parents that he believes they care more about their martinis than all the people dying in the war. It’s a hurtful, sanctimonious comment, and not really true.
He almost immediately regrets saying it. But what is true is his growing frustration with the sense of the stultifying middle-class complacency that surrounds his suburban world.
One Saturday afternoon, the young man drives to Chicago’s north side to visit a counterculture bookstore. There he eagerly loads up on all kinds of reading material, a couple of books, cheaply produced flyers, newsletters, and underground newspapers. Some of the reading material is nonviolent, religious-oriented critiques of the war written from a pacifist viewpoint.
He also discovers more radical left-wing material, the latter laden with references to imperialism, capitalist exploitation, and similar terms.
When he returns home later that afternoon, the young man sets the new reading material on the kitchen table, ignoring his father who has just then happened to walk into the kitchen. While he makes a sandwich, he does not notice his father examining the stack of reading matter. Nor does he anticipate the storm about to burst.
Suddenly, his father’s voice fills the room, “What is all this? Where did you get these things?” The young man turns around in surprise. What is he talking about? Before him looms his father’s face, chiseled in stone anger. He is holding up some antiwar pamphlet in hand. “You’re not keeping this garbage in my house,” he angrily announces.
Whatever momentary confusion the teenager feels at the outburst quickly turns to indignation. “What? Are you crazy?” he replies, his own voice rising, “It’s not up to you what I read.” Then he says something that will trigger the firefight.
“I thought you believed in democracy? Is this your idea of democracy, telling people what they can or cannot read?” He throws his sarcasm at his father like a flaming dagger. “That’s it. This,” his father declares holding up the pamphlet as if about to bring down the gavel and pronounce sentence, “is communist propaganda, and it’s going in the fireplace!”
He quickly sweeps up the materials in his arms and makes his way toward the living room. “I’m going to work every day to take care of this family,” he says loudly, not looking at this son, “It’s not so you can ruin your life with a bunch of crazy ideas.”
The young man is shocked and hurt at this unexpected behavior. He tries to reason with the older man. Desperately, he tells him it’s all just words and ideas. He doesn’t even know what he agrees with or disagrees with yet; he hasn’t read any of it!
“I’m interested in what people have to say,” the son pleads as they enter the living room, “Why are you getting so upset?” But the father acts like he doesn’t hear him. Instead, he pulls the chain to open the screen on the fireplace.
It is a tangled, undignified tango they dance that afternoon. Immediately, the son tries to yank the materials away from his father. He resists and pushes him away with his whole body. For a moment, he feels the impulse to punch his father. Fortunately, his mother enters the living room just then, both scolding and pleading for both of them to calm down.
Her presence soothes the moment just enough for his father to pull back from his intended task.
Still angry, the father retreats from the fireplace, setting the material on the nearby dining table. He starts to say something, but the son is through. “The hell with it, do whatever you want,” he spits out the words disdainfully. Abruptly, he then turns and runs up the stairs to his bedroom and slams the door shut.
The generation gap quietly knocking at the front entryway has suddenly barged into the family living room, sweeping away the dust of old ideas, and noisily taking up residence.
He broods for a long time in the afternoon’s aftermath, entertaining fantasies of running away from home. But what can he do? It will be another two years before college beckons. He was happy earlier to drive into the city. What did he do that was so wrong? Is it a crime to read and learn, to think for yourself? Is it a crime to oppose the Vietnam war? Is it wrong to want to end all war?
What does his father want anyway? Does he want his son to think like him? To vote like him? To be just like him? And then gradually, as his anger dies down, a more forlorn feeling washes over the young man. He doesn’t enjoy arguing with his father. It hurts and pains him. But is it too much to expect to be treated with respect, to be accorded understanding and tolerance as he finds his own way forward?
In the mid-1960s, his father once sat next to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on an airplane. They were on a flight from Chicago to Atlanta, flying coach. The two men said hello at the beginning of the flight. According to his father, King had his briefcase and pen out throughout the flight, “lost in work.”
To his father, King was a controversial figure, more of a firebrand troublemaker than a social visionary. At the age of 17, the young man is underwhelmed with this attitude toward the great civil rights leader. He is looking at life differently now.
The innocent fifth-grade boy who once played third base in Little League, wearing his baseball uniform with pride, casting sideways glances to see if his father is watching from the stands, is growing now into ideas of his own.
Later, his father knocks on the door to apologize. He acted impulsively earlier, he says. It wasn’t right and he’s sorry. He tells his son he doesn’t want to stop him from reading what he wants, but just to be smart about it. Think for yourself, he says (the son thinks: yes, and wasn’t this the point all along?).
He accepts the apology somewhat wearily. This time the wound has struck deep. They are standing now on opposite shores of a raging river, one consuming not only their private world, but also the culture of two generations, and a nation divided by ideas of justice and war.
For the son, the momentary challenge of maneuvering the landmines of a parent’s contradictory behavior is only the surface of things. Alone, his emotions bruised, he feels as if he is living in a society of soulless sleepwalkers. The indifference of others to social injustice, violence, and human suffering penetrates his heart like a wounding arrow.
How does he live in this unkind, brutish world, with its wars to be fought and money to be made? How does he make something of his life in a world not of his own making?
They are questions for a lifetime.
He is only a teenager. Yet the gravitational pull of the existing society is rapidly losing its hold. He is hurtling now into the deep space of adolescent disenchantment, a wanderer in search of utopia, love, and a future far too slow in coming.
Mark Harris is a hopeful idealist interested in transforming the world, through political activism, literature, and other creative means. He lives in Portland, OR, where he writes on health, social justice, and more personal themes. His essays and other writing have appeared in Utne magazine, The Oregonian, and elsewhere. Mark is a featured contributor on ‘The Flexible Writer’, fourth edition, by Susanna Rich (Allyn & Bacon/Longman, 2003). More of his writing can be found at his website, and he could be contacted via email.