Category Archives: Family

The Dog Days of Winter

I awoke at four a.m. on a snowy February morning dreaming of and missing my parents, while thinking about the Dog Days of summer. If I could explain the workings of the subconscious mind I would do so as I accepted the Nobel Prize for science, but I do not have a clue, only appreciation. Many problems are solved, jangling nerves and emotions soothed by our never off-line mind, courtesy of nature’s sleep mode.

I drifted off the night before knowing I would shovel snow in the morning. Now awake, I struggled to retain my dream before it disappeared amongst bothersome conscious thoughts of the day to come. I pulled on long johns, wool socks and tossed my jeans over a shoulder, then cranked up the thermostat as I shuffled through our dark, Victorian home to the kitchen. Radiators steaming, coffee pot perking, I propped open the back door and released our Sheltie, Sammy. Paws crunching on the white blanketed deck, he scampered to and fro before doing his duty and scrambling back inside for breakfast, gobbling his grub with the intensity of a starving man.

Ah, Dog Days, I thought, my dream rushing to the fore. With a jolt from a stiff cup of Joe, I flipped my mind and laptop on and Googled Dog Days. Beginning with Wikipedia, I switched back and forth between blank mind and snow-white document screen, tracking ever lengthening threads of information and thoughts sparked by my subconscious wanderings.

The Romans, I learned, called the Dog Days of summer “dies caniculares and associated the hot weather with the star Sirius…the ‘Dog Star’ because it is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (Large Dog).” On our modern calendar the “Dog Days of summer” follow the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and run from July through August in the Northern Hemisphere and January through February in the Southern. Unaware of the original meaning of the phrase, many of us associate Dog Days with the lethargy of domesticated dogs during these blistering months. But, unlike the Romans, we do not sacrifice any of our furry friends in hopes of abating the heat; instead, we retreat to air conditioned rooms or lay in the shade with our pets and take a nap.

Mmmmm, I thought, giving Sammy a pat on the head and with my brain, computer and radiators humming scrolled down the screen, continuing to alternately read and write.

It seems that in the 19th century, Dog Days were thought of as an evil time when, according to John Brady in his book Clavis Calenderia (circa 1813), “the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mean, and all other creatures became languid: causing to man…burning fevers, hysterics and phrenises.”  Although not written in reference to the Dog Days, Noel Coward’s lyric “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” is the 20th century take on the sultry days of summer. As for 2013, in our anxiety riddled society, the Dog Days are a time to wax on climate change and our impending doom.

This prompted thoughts about my melancholy dream of my parents. Jumping down the screen, the text reminded me that we live in an equally halved world above and below the equator. So, conversely, when the Southern Hemisphere is lolling through their Dog Days, the Northern is experiencing the shortest day of the year around December 20th.

Now, there is no corresponding popular phrase to capture the two months which follow, but they are associated with the winter blues. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine “some people experience a serious mood change during the winter months, when there is less natural sunlight. This is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD)…and is a type of depression.”

Of course, I thought to myself in the now cozy kitchen, most of us do not go mad in July or August or plunge into a clinical depression in January and February. But as a writer with a vivid imagination capable of conjuring calamities provoked by the slightest of pretenses, it is reassuring to know that they may be due to nothing more than the tilt of the earth.

“You’re just out of sorts,” my mother used to say, “get busy and it will go away.”

And there it was.

I stopped typing, gratefully punched the “saved” button and refilled my coffee cup. I stared out the window, the weak winter sun sparkling off the crystallized earth.

My parents both passed a few years apart at the end of January, their funerals held on harsh, unforgiving days like the one yawning before me.

My father, a decorated combat GI in WWII, received a full honor guard, a line of gray-haired veterans standing at attention, freezing rain soaking their uniforms and streaming down weathered faces.  I have no idea how long they waited in the drizzle before we arrived, but they were ramrod straight and ready for their fallen comrade. It was one of the most moving and reaffirming moments of a depressing day.

Although 82, my mother died unexpectedly. She was in the hospital for minor surgery and choked to death the night before while eating. A classically trained pianist and soprano, her once perfect posture was destroyed by osteoporosis, her internal organs collapsing on one another, and she could not muster enough wind to clear her throat. A nurse discovered her when she came in to pick up the dinner tray.

I spoke to Mom earlier in the day, never thinking it could be our last conversation.

I heard my wife, Yolanda, stirring upstairs and I made another pot of coffee. Sammy, hunger satiated, stretched out near a radiator, sound asleep, his world a place of perfect contentment.

I switched off the laptop, slipped on my jeans, laced up my boots, donned a wool cap, leather coat and gloves and shoveled snow.

It was time to get busy.

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Filed under 21st Century America, Dog Days, Family, February 2013, Greatest Generation, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), Winter Blues, World War II

9/11 at 11

We go from here.

When I was growing up my father said this to me when I did something that threw me off stride in my march to adulthood.  No choir boy, I heard it often.

I’m grateful to have been raised by parents born in the 1920’s. Mom and Dad weathered the Great Depression and WWII. “Potato pancakes” was a staple at their supper tables. Mom was a survivor of polio, Dad, bloody combat.  When he was nineteen his platoon was decimated in the Battle of the Bulge, seven soldiers alive at the end, five walking, they carried the other two to a field hospital.  The platoon was filled with replacements and Dad and the others followed Patton across Europe to victory.

We go from here.

My parents experienced suffering in a way few from succeeding American generations have. But that suffering provided a sense of proportion to their daily lives. Far too often now, Americans, as individuals and a country, invoke the term “crisis” to describe things that I’m certain my folks would view as challenges, but not crises.

9/11 was different.

I asked Mom if it was worse than Pearl Harbor.

“Yes,” she said, voice cracking.

I called Dad.  Only months from death, three packs a day of Lucky Strikes taking their toll, he struggled to breathe and his short-term memory was shot. But he understood what happened on 9/11.

“We’ll beat ’em,” he whispered.

We go from here.

A few weeks after 9/11 I drove to West Lafayette, Indiana with three buddies from high school to watch the Illinois-Purdue football game.  I don’t remember who won. I recall a small plane approaching the stadium, a wind-whipped advertising banner in tow. Everyone’s attention went from the game on the field to the plane in the sky.  I realized I’d never hear the approach of an airplane or gaze at its flight path in the same way again.

Ten years passed.

The fall of 2011 I was at the Illinois home game against South Dakota State with a friend I’ve made since 9/11. Two trumpeters played taps and there was a moment of silence. Throughout the game uniformed service men and women, Illinois alums, talked and waved from the big screen on the stadium scoreboard, some holding babies, others taped from overseas posts.

The next morning, the tenth anniversary, I stretched in front of the TV, preparing to run three miles on a quiet Sunday morning.  Relatives of people who were killed on 9/11 read names of victims, ending with their loved one and a brief remembrance of what they meant to them. Tears welled in my eyes.

I ran.

Along the way I waved to friends, neighbors and a local cop on patrol.  I thought of the last decade, years 9/11 victims and their families lost. With rare exception, my wife, Yolanda, and I put our children to bed every night and awoke with them each morning.  We went to piano recitals, soccer games, swim meets, first communions, birthday parties, and high school graduations. Our daughter, Anissa, blossomed into a woman. Our son, Michael, survived a horrific auto accident. The paramedics told us there was a ten percent chance someone survived such a crash in one piece. Our son walked away and, two years later, off to college.  Both my parents died.

I finished my run strong, racing up the final hill to our house.  I snatched a cold bottle of water from the fridge and wandered into the TV room where Yolanda was watching the 9/11 memorials.  Paul Simon sang “Sound of Silence.”

When he finished, Yolanda told me that earlier that day a suicide bomber injured seventy-seven American service men and women at a base in Afghanistan. Five Afghani civilians, including a three-year old girl, were killed.

It’s Sunday, September 9th, 2012, and I open the Champaign News-Gazette to articles about memorial plans for the eleventh anniversary. At the bottom of page one is the headline “On average, U.S. has lost a soldier each day in 2012.” One of the latest casualties was Pfc. Shane W. Cantu, twenty, one year younger than Michael. Cantu was, according to his buddies, a lot like my son, a gregarious guy who lit up every room he entered. Cantu was ten years old on 9/11. In the story, a military historian says Afghanistan has become the “’Who Cares?’ war.”

Ten years, now eleven.

We go from here.

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Filed under 21st Century America, 9/11, Citizen Soldiers, Family, Friends, Greatest Generation, Illinois Football, Newspaper, Running, September 2012, Small town America, World War II

And for God’s sake…Clean your room!

It can be a battle cry or a plea, a conversation starter or killer, the opening ante or the last card played in high stakes parent/child “it’s our house/my room” poker. Sure, I know there are families where kids’ rooms are well-kept, but I have never lived in such a house.

I could Google the topic to find statistics and studies to determine if there is a correlation between neatness, character, academic achievement and all-round “great kid” status.  But in this election year where we are inundated with polls and prognostications, I have no desire to research another flash point issue in which an expert shrugs his shoulders and says: “At the end of the day, it’s anybody’s guess.”

No, this is one topic where we can rely upon anecdotal experience to yield unreliable results.

My oldest brother, Scott, was a hall of fame slob, the color of his carpet unknown until he moved to college and the debris field cleared. He was also class valedictorian, varsity basketball player and trumpeter in the band.  After he graduated from college and got his own apartment I was stunned when he scolded me for putting a beer bottle on his coffee table without a coaster.

My other brother, Tim, was a Boy Scout and National Merit Scholar who vacuumed his carpet and made his bed every morning, without Mom asking. In my book, and Scott’s, Tim was a traitor.

I do not recall whether my sisters, Amy and Holly, rooms were orderly. But that being the case, they must have been acceptable.

I was not a tidy kid.  But I was child number four and Mom was running low on energy by the time I reached my teens, closing the door with a groan more often than engaging me in debate.

One day, however, she reached a breaking point and rolled in the big gun: Dad.

Now, in general, Dad displayed little interest in housekeeping. He kept the TV room and the area around his easy chair organized. Lucky Strikes and stainless steel Zippo lighter squared against a chrome ashtray, remote or, in the prehistoric days of my early childhood, one of his five kids within range to change channels. That was about it.

But he lived in Mom’s house and she had spoken, so the order was issued: “Clean your room.”

Skeptical of my return minutes later, we marched upstairs for inspection. Seeing the bed made and floor rubble free, Dad strode toward the closet.

“Dad,” I blurted.

Dirty clothes, empty boxes, stinky sneakers and a basketball spilled on top of him.

“Nice try,” he said. “Now clean your room.”

Like his uncle Scott, our son Michael has morphed into a respectable housekeeper. I spent a week with him this summer at his apartment and was amazed by stacks of washed dishes, folded towels and clean sheets.

Our daughter, Anissa, has not reached this point. Mainly because she has never met a hangar, hook or organizer she liked.

Upon entering the house her shoes go one way, purse another, jacket a third. Car keys have been located under seat cushions, on bathroom shelves and beneath her bed. Dirty clothes are abandoned in the laundry room, languishing until dresser drawers and closets are bare.

Last week we moved Anissa into her dorm room. Excited, she flipped off her Birkenstock sandals and went to work. Later, we prepared to run her and her roommate, Stephi, to Target for supplies.

“Where’s my Birkenstock?” Anissa said.

We all stared at her bare left foot.

“Where’d you take them off?” I foolishly asked.

My wife, Yolanda, sighed. Anissa shrugged, her palms up.

We shifted suit cases and boxes, propped up the futon, checked under both beds. Nothing.

“Well,” Anissa said, “this is a new one, even for me.”

Stephi, filled with the fearlessness of youth, attacked the futon like she was wrestling an alligator. She flipped it to the floor, peeled back the fitted sheet and shook it until it coughed up a Birkenstock.

“I knew it had to be here,” Stephi said, eyes shining.

Hours later, as we drove home, a picture of Anissa’s made bed and well-organized desk glowed from the screen of Yolanda’s Android.

“How long do you think it’ll stay that way?” she said, gazing wistfully at the photo, saving it in her gallery.

“It’s anybody’s guess,” I said.

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Filed under 21st Century America, August 2012, Brothers, Empty Nesters, Family, Housekeeping, Small town America

Mayberry is Real, Happy Valley a Myth

At first blush the death of Andy Griffith and the release of Louis B. Freeh’s findings regarding the Penn State pedophilia scandal seem unrelated.

Griffith’s most famous role was as Sheriff Andy Taylor in the mythical town of Mayberry where the sun shone and showers fell as needed, folks were amiable and any feuds were settled within each half-hour episode. Crime was limited to moonshiners, carnival shell game barkers and snake oil salesman, all of whom Andy outsmarted and rendered justice upon.  Even Otis the town drunk was responsible enough to lock himself up when he had his fill.

With Griffith’s death some pundits have pointed out the obvious, that Mayberry was not real. It did not reflect the times in which it was made, the tumult of the sixties not descending upon Andy, Barney, Opie, Aunt Bee and the rest.

But that is missing the point.

The great movie, “A Face in the Crowd,” is evidence that Griffith was well-aware of the dark side of small-town life and the American dream. Griffith and the other creators of the TV show, the writers, directors and producers were intelligent people. They knew Mayberry existed only as an ideal. But it was one based on love of family, kindness toward your fellow man and a gentle humor regarding the absurdity that is this life. Unlike so much entertainment today which sinks to the lowest common denominator, the “Andy Griffith Show” spoke to the better angels of our souls, a place in the hearts of all people of good will who long for a gentler world. There was no intent to deceive or fool the audience, but rather an effort to create a world worth aspiring to.

The creators and producers of the longest running show at Happy Valley, the Penn State football team, were less idealistic. The Andy Taylor of this mythical place was Joe Paterno. The English major turned coach whose teams won the “the right way,” with players graduating on time and nary a whiff of scandal. Joe Pa set the pace, living by the same high standards he demanded of his players, residing in a modest home near campus, donating millions to the university. Maybe only John Wooden was as respected both as a man and a coach as Joe Paterno.

But as real as Mayberry was in terms of ideals, Happy Valley was a fraud.

It is difficult to understand how group think motivates otherwise smart people like Paterno, then President Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and now-retired vice president Gary Schultz to allegedly cover up wrongs in the name of a “greater good.”  Money, of course, the perennially winning Penn State football program makes a fortune for the university in the form of ticket sales, memorabilia and bowl games. Paterno’s reputation for fair play and the Happy Valley mystique is attractive to tuition paying parents and their children who see it as a safe haven. Proud alums and others wishing to be associated with such a prestigious, well-thought of institution donate millions to endowments. But even greed cannot explain the rationalizations that had to occur in order to cover for a predator like Jerry Sandusky. To, as Freeh stated, participate in “an active agreement to conceal.”

Whether it is the Catholic Church protecting pedophile priests or a university not reporting suspected child molestation somehow the powers at be lose sight of the reason their institution exists: to serve others. The “reputation” of the institution takes precedence over its mission. Unlike Mayberry, where wrong doers answered for their crimes, at Happy Valley a pedophile was sheltered from prosecution for at least a decade because of concerns his actions might damage the football team and the university. And, according to Freeh’s report, Joe Pa was hip deep in the cover up. A note from Curley indicated that he changed his mind about reporting Sandusky “after giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe.”

When we moved to Hoopeston fifteen years ago some of my friends, knowing my fondness for the “Andy Griffith Show,” and discovering I walked to my office on Main Street next to the movie theater, asked how things were in “Mayberry.” After being raised in small towns and living in Chicago and Dallas, my wife, Yolanda, and I were looking for a slower pace to raise our kids. But we never deluded ourselves into thinking we had arrived at some worry free nirvana. To that point, a coach at a junior high in a nearby town was recently convicted of child molestation.

Big town or small, we all know evil exists in this world.

Yet there are moments when visiting with fellow parishioners after Saturday night Mass, walking home from church along shaded brick streets, greeted by honked horns and friendly waves, that we get a taste of Mayberry. The fact these moments are fleeting amongst an ever coarsening world make them all the more worth savoring.

In that sense, the ideals of Mayberry and its humble leader, Sheriff Andy Taylor, are real.

It is the Happy Valleys and Joe Pas of this world that are myth.

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Filed under 21st Century America, Andy Griffith Show, Catholic Church, Crime, Don Knotts, Exploitation, Family, Football, Friends, Happy Valley, Institutions, Joe Paterno, July 2012, Mayberry, Penn State, Situation Comedies, Small town America, Sports page, The Movies

Trophy for a Life Well-Lived

A friend took his nine and seven year old grandsons to the cemetery of their family farm one late summer day. He pointed to where his wife, mother, father, grandparents and generations of relatives were buried. Modest Midwesterners, most graves were marked by clean rectangular stones.

Most.

Over a great-great-grandfather’s grave a marble column with a bowl balanced on top towered, casting a long shadow.

Fresh from their trophy-filled awards banquet for baseball the boys gazed up at the monument.

“Grandpa,” the youngest said, pointing, “what’d he do to win a trophy like that?”

Monuments to self are nothing new. The Great Pyramid of Giza, the above-ground tombs called “cities of the dead” in New Orleans and my friend’s great-great-grandfather’s tower reflect a yearning for recognition even in death. Like a cemetery, the Pyramid of Giza and the New Orleans vaults provide space and recognition for family as well. In New Orleans, once a family member has been dead two years their body can be placed in a bag and laid to one side of the vault, the coffin destroyed, making way for the next relative’s casket.

Of course, not all monuments are constructed after death as a final acknowledgement. Some spring from the egotism of the living. See everything Trump.

Others are less tangible, but more substantive, the sum of a life well-lived. A loving family, friends, a successful career or business which benefits the individual and others, a passion for life, these are the truly lasting monuments we build.

But most of us do not consider our legacy as we traipse through life. We do our best to do the right thing, to care for others and ourselves. We view actions which make things easier for all as fulfilling the social contract necessary for civilization. We do not seek recognition or an “Atta boy.” Not out of modesty, but because we are doing what is expected.

My father was a decorated combat vet of WWII. Yet he and his buddies rarely discussed, let alone boasted, of their service.

“Just about everybody served,” he said. “Whether they were in the military or not, most folks pitched in. How you gonna brag about doin’ something everybody’s doin’?”

Such reticence may be why, in death, some individuals or their family, feel the need to mark graves with a distinctive memorial as a final honor.

On Memorial Day weekend I try to watch a movie like “Sergeant York,” “Saving Private Ryan,” or “Flags of our Fathers.” This year David Lean’s Academy Award winning “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was on Turner Classic Movies.

Starring William Holden and Alec Guinness, the movie is memorable for many reasons, not the least the tune “Colonel Bogey” which the British prisoners whistle as they enter the POW camp.

Guinness’ character, Colonel Nicholson, dominates, however. His metamorphosis from a British soldier’s soldier, staunchly defending his officers against performing manual labor per the Geneva Convention then ordering them to do so as they construct a bridge “better than the Japanese can build themselves,” drives the film. Nicholson goes from determined adversary to collaborating with the enemy, not understanding his error until the end.

Yet it is a scene from the night before Nicholson’s self-realization that sticks with me. He stands on the completed bridge talking to the shamed Japanese POW camp commander, Colonel Saito. Nicholson won a war of wills with Saito and effectively runs the camp. At this point, though, Nicholson is reflective, not imperious.

“But there are times,” he says to Saito, “when you suddenly realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. You wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Or if it made any difference at all really…particularly in comparison with other men’s careers. I don’t know whether that kind of thinking is very healthy, but I must admit I’ve had some thoughts along those lines from time to time. But tonight…tonight!”

Nicholson gazes across the rushing river at the setting sun. The next day the monument to self on which he proudly stands is destroyed.

Such is the ultimate fate of all man-made monuments.

I will be cremated, ashes scattered. But I have no quarrel with those who give themselves a final “Atta boy” with a towering monument.

Perhaps a life well-lived deserves a “trophy like that.”

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Filed under 21st Century America, Alec Guiness, Baby Boomers, Cemetaries, Citizen Soldiers, David Lean, Donald Trump, Family, Friends, Greatest Generation, June 2012, Legacy, Small town America, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Pyramid of Giza, The Movies, Tombstones, William Holden, World War II, WWII America

Memorial Day Reflection: Was the Greatest Generation Beat?

From my article “Was the Greatest Generation’beat’?” published in the Sunday, May 27, 2012  Commentary Section of the Champaign News-Gazette.

The movie version of Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road” debuted last week. As is sometimes the case when adapting a book, the movie is a disappointment. In part, from what I have culled from reviews, because it focuses on the Beats hard partying, jazz loving, sexually open ways. But being “beat” was not simply a lifestyle. It was a perspective. As the movie synopsis puts it, a generational search for “It.”

The original Beats, like Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg, William Burroughs and John Clellon Holmes, were born in the 1920’s, grew up during the Great Depression and came of age with WWII. So did my late parents, Jim and Betty Pemberton, a middle class couple who settled in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois and raised five children. Despite the different ways of life, my folks and the Beats were part of what Tom Brokaw hailed as the “Greatest Generation.”  While Brokaw’s label reflects their accomplishments, it does not capture their soul.

For me, that soul was “Beat.”

In two essays John Clellon Holmes identified common threads he believed ran through his contemporaries. While admitting that “any attempt to label an entire generation is unrewarding” Holmes nevertheless believes these Americans seem “to possess a uniform, general quality which demands an adjective.”  The term “beat” Holmes says “implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw” of being “undramatically pushed up against the wall of oneself” someone who “goes for broke and wagers the sum of his resources on a single number; and the young generation has done that continually from early youth.”

For this generation, Holmes states “how to live seems to them much more crucial than why.”

Reasonable, considering the Beat Generation was the first in American history to face a combination of three sobering facts. They grew up in a world where an inexplicable “crash” of a market in New York destroyed economic well-being. They matured when a seemingly insulated America was attacked from overseas. Then faced the realization the world could be eviscerated by a single bomb, the way of life they saved destroyed by their own inventiveness.

It resulted, says Holmes, in the “stirrings of a quest” for the “hipster” on the left and the “young Republican” on the right, each of whom “have had enough of homelessness, valuelessness, faithlessness.”

The search for “It.”

It was this alienation that produced the Beats. While much is made of the bohemian aspects of the Beats, if they were so outside the mainstream what to make of the popularity of Kerouac’s On the Road, Ginsberg’s Howl, and Burroughs Naked Lunch?  Their success illustrates the link between the “hipster” and the “young Republican.”

Like their fellow Beats, my mother and father searched for the “how” of living.  My father was a fair-haired boy who lived on the family farm with his maternal grandmother while his widowed mother, Alta, earned a degree as a nurse. They moved from this relative security to Bloomington-Normal where Alta found work and “Jimmy” went through high school with two front teeth missing. He enlisted in the Army at eighteen.

“At least the Army fixed my teeth,” Dad said.  “That and the GI Bill were about the only good thing they did for me.”

He was shipped overseas after D-Day, survived the Battle of the Bulge (of his platoon of forty men, seven walked away), charged across Europe with Patton, liberated a concentration camp and survived the European campaign only to be informed he was headed to the Pacific. In August of 1945, Dad read in the papers that the dropping of two “atom” bombs and the threat of a Russian invasion convinced the Japanese to accept unconditional surrender.

“We were thrilled; thousands of GI’s would’ve been killed invading Japan.”

Months later he stepped off the train in Blomington greeted by silence, unable to notify his mother of his return. It is safe to say twenty-one year old Staff Sergeant James Roland Pemberton was “beat.”

“After the war,” he said, “I never had any urge to live anywhere but Bloomington-Normal.  Never thought twice about it.  I swore I’d never be cold or wet or hungry again.  I just wanted to live my life.  After everything that happened, I figured it was all gravy.”

My mother, Betty, lived with her parents, three sisters, aunt and grandmother along with borders, in a rambling house. She remembered her mother, Dorothy, scurrying to the kitchen while her grandmother visited with gypsies on the front porch. The gypsies pitched knick-knacks while their children sneaked around back to steal. But the kids were met by a broom-swinging Dorothy, shooing them away.

Mom suffered from any number of childhood illnesses, brown eyes encased in fragile wire-rimmed glasses. Yet she earned a full-ride music scholarship to Illinois Wesleyan, graduating despite her old-world father’s skepticism. She met and married my father, survived polio, mothered five children, and stayed at home.

“Not because I had to, but because I wanted to.  It was a joy to have my own home, just my husband, my children, and me.”

My parents longing for security was shared. As Kerouac writes in his first novel, The Town and the City, young people were in a state of flux which “no one could see…yet everyone was in it…grown fantastic and homeless in war, and strangely haunted now.” For some, life became a search for “kicks…wandering ‘beat’…in search of some other job or benefactor or ‘loot’ or ‘gold’.”

The search for “It.”

It is this dislocation, weary and bitter even in victory, which is often overlooked when people think of post-WWII America. Of how each soldier was affected by the war, how their death or return impacted family, lovers, friends and society. The reality of the homecoming did not match the “we’re all in this together” motif many associate with WWII America. For most, like my father, there were no parades or kisses on Times Square. The return of several million men proved as problematical to the many Americans who never left as it did for those coming home.

In his book Citizen Soldiers historian Stephen Ambrose quotes my father recalling a moment at the end of the war. It reflects the relief millions must have felt:

“The night of May 8, 1945 I was looking down from our cabin on the mountain at the Inn River Valley in Austria.  It was black.  And then the lights inInnsbruckwent on.  If you have not lived in darkness for months, shielding even a match light deep in a foxhole, you can’t imagine the feeling.”

My father was twenty.

I think the perspectives of Kerouac and my parents spoke for many young people who, having weathered the Depression and the war, were just glad to be alive. They arrived at this conclusion not at middle age, when the realization we have lived the better part of our days hits home, but in their twenties. Imagine being that young and feeling grateful to be alive and free, a circumstance most generations of twenty-something’s in this country take for granted.  Yet these young people were emotionally and physically spent. Some, like my father and mother, searched for “It” by attempting to create a safe, orderly existence of predictable days where they might “never be cold or wet or hungry again,” content to “have my own home.” Even those like Kerouac, who sought the “how” of life outside the safety of hearth and home, ached for a sense of security.

As Holmes noted:

“Everyone who has lived through a war, any sort of war, knows that beat means not so much weariness, as rawness of nerves; not so much being “filled up to here,” as being emptied out.  It describes a state of mind from which all unessentials have been stripped, leaving it receptive to everything around it, but impatient with trivial obstructions. To be beat is to be at the bottom of your personality, to be looking up…”

Kerouac, the “hipster,” and my father, the “young Republican,” and the millions in between, embarked on their individual journeys because they realized that escaping economic catastrophe and the absence of war was not enough.

But the question of what to do next, “how” to move forward and make the most of the gift bestowed upon them – life – was still to be answered. Connected by a confluence of historical events, they began a “quest” for “It.” Some went on the road, others never ventured far from home. As a whole they were the “Greatest.”

But that is so because a part of each of them was “Beat.”  

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Filed under Allan Ginsburg, Citizen Soldiers, Family, Greatest Generation, Howl, Institutions, John Burroughs, John Clellon Holmes, Kerouac, May 2012, Naked Lunch, On the Road, Road Trips, Stephen Ambrose, The Beats, The Movies, The Town and the City, World War II, WWII America

Brothers

“Mom, Mom,” my nephew Ethan wailed as he raced into my in-laws house in Texas, “Seth’s pickin’ on me…”

“She’s not here, Ethan,” I said, setting down the newspaper and motioning him my way. “What’s the problem?”

Ethan, six at the time, rubbed teary eyes and sat next to me on the couch.

“Seth won’t let me shoot baskets,” he said between sobs. “Keeps takin’ the ball away and laughin’.”

“He hasn’t passed you the ball at all?”

“Only to bounce it off my head!”

“You know, Ethan,” I said, putting an arm around him as I suppressed a smile, “I had two big brothers who did stuff like that. I’d get so mad I couldn’t see straight. Scott was wrestling with me one time and jammed my head into the wall…I had to get six stitches. Tim and I shared a room and he made me sign a contract that I couldn’t cross the floor without his permission. Dad tore that up when he found out…But guess what? They didn’t pick on me forever. They stopped.”

“What happened?” Ethan said, no longer crying, brown eyes wide with concern. “Did they die?”

I am happy to report that Scott, ten years my senior, and Tim, five, are alive and well. Furthermore, as unbelievable as it may be for Ethan to believe, they do not pick on me, at least not on a basketball court. I am six-two and they are five-ten (in their dreams.)

Though separated by time and miles, I think of my brothers often, particularly when other brothers are in the news. Most recently on the national scene it was the Manning brothers, Cooper, Peyton and Eli.

“I’m proud of Peyton,” Eli, the youngest, said before the Super Bowl in February where his New York Giants were playing the New England Patriots. He had been asked for the one-hundredth time about the hubbub surrounding Peyton’s contract with the Indianapolis Colts.

“I’ve talked to him this week,” Eli continued. “None of that comes up…he does a great job of trying to keep me relaxed. We talk a little football and talk about New England some. He’s supported me… I know he’s just working hard trying to get healthy and I’m supporting him on that.”

Eli went on to lead the Giants to their second championship in four years while garnering MVP honors. In so doing, he surpassed the future Hall of Famer Peyton in Super Bowl wins and stepped out from his big brother’s long shadow.

While the win certainly altered people’s opinions about Eli’s career, I doubt whether the Giants winning or losing would have changed his relationship with Peyton. They are brothers, close brothers, and career success or failure, does not factor into the equation.

Their older brother, Cooper, who could not play college football because of spinal stenosis, was once asked if he harbored any repressed jealousy for his two younger brothers’ athletic accomplishments. “No, zero of that.”

I believe him.  Brothers can be hard on one another, but they celebrate successes as if they were their own. They also close ranks quickly when support is needed. Scott invited me to live with him in Chicago when I was twenty and struggling to figure out what to do with myself, helping me find a job at a bank while encouraging me to return to college. Years later he unexpectedly toasted me at Christmas dinner at the end of my first year as a business owner, congratulating me on its success.

Tim and I lived together after I graduated from college and I began my career with State Farm Insurance in Dallas. It is rumored that Tim has the first dollar he ever made tucked into a safe deposit box in an undisclosed location, but he paid the rent and gave me spending money until my paychecks started.  Recently he called me on a Sunday morning to offer congratulations on my novel and inform me he “read it straight through…it really is good, Mike.”

About a year after my conversation with Ethan, my wife, Yolanda, and I were back in Texas. I had just finished playing basketball with Ethan, Seth and their neighborhood buddies. As I sat down in the living room with a cold glass of water a door slammed behind me.

“Mom, Mom,” Ethan wailed. “Seth’s pickin’ on me…”

I settled into the couch, smiled and thought of my big brothers.

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Filed under 21st Century America, April 2012, Brothers, Family, Football, NFL, Super Bowl, Transcendental Basketball Blues