Category Archives: Road Trips

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.”  

Advertisements

1 Comment

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

Of Minivans and Memories

“Dad,” my eight year old daughter, Anissa, said, “are we ever going to return to civilization?”

It was August, 2001, a month before the world as Americans knew it changed forever. My wife, Yolanda, and I along with our two kids, Michael and Anissa, were speeding along in our tan Ford Windstar minivan on a two lane highway in North Dakota. On either side of us were endless miles of wheat and bright yellow sunflowers. Our only company farmers harvesting wheat, air-conditioned combines cruising effortlessly up and down the rolling hills. Their grain truck drivers, beds brimming with the golden harvest , tooted horns and gave us a wave.  I was grateful for their presence, knowing that if we broke down help would be quick in coming.

“Yep,” I reassured Anissa,  Yolanda and I smiling, “soon enough. So enjoy the view.”

I do not consider myself a car guy. I’ve never dreaded trading a car or longed for a certain type. We bought the Windstar new in 1998, but since then we’ve spent our money on a solid, if unexciting used Buick Century and a leg-room loving Lincoln Continental with 70,000 miles.  None of these cars evoke “zoom, zoom” excitement, yet get us from point A to point B relatively hassle free.

But it’s the Windstar that has stood us best. Over the years we’ve strapped a bulging canvas carrier to the top, loaded the back with suitcases, wedged a cooler in between the seats and taken off to see America.  Twice to the aforementioned Dakotas, the second time a few weeks before Michael went off to college. There was the summer we spent a week in Minnesota, one of the nicest family vacations ever, with a friend of mine whose father built a cabin for us to stay in. There was the trip to the Carolina’s with a couple of families, rolling the van off and on ferry’s, the kids thrilled to be “In a car, on a boat!” as we skipped the interstate and island hopped up the outer banks to Kitty Hawk, Jamestown, and into Washington D.C.

We trekked to Niagara Falls via Michigan and across Canada. Michael, new driver’s permit in his pocket, lead in his right foot, causing his nervous old man to shout: “It’s go time. HOLD ON!” as we barreled toward the back bumper of a car which had slowed to a crawl on a congested highway outside of Detroit.  One spring break we traveled to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Windstar stalling out on a steep grade, coasting into a driveway where we cranked her up and went on our way.   The longest journey we took was to South Padre Island, Texas, 3,000 miles roundtrip, the passage through a deserted King’s Ranch the desolate flip side of the fertile Dakotas.  Add to this soccer games, swim meets, football games, birthday parties, piano recitals, band concerts, weddings, first communions and graduations where we filled the Windstar with family and friends, enjoying their company and the ride as much as the events themselves.  With the kids in college, the Windstar has slipped into semi-retirement, rolled out for tailgating at Illinois games or hauling stuff home from the hardware store. Back seat removed, it’s like a pickup truck with a roof.

A week ago, Yolanda and I drove to Anissa’s college to bring her home for fall break. She asked us to bring a futon with us, so we bought one at Walmart, hoisted it into the back of the Windstar and headed out. On the way, however, the “Service Engine Light” glowed an ominous orange on the dashboard.

Yolanda and I exchanged uncertain looks.

“I don’t want anything to happen to my van,” she said. “Take it in as soon as we get home.”

The local shop we’ve used for years ran a diagnostic test and determined that in order to stop that orange light from shining we needed a part that would cost $500 plus labor.

“What happens if we don’t install it?” I asked. “The car has 153,000 miles on it and is probably worth $1,500. Will the engine be damaged? The orange light stay on?”

“You’re not gonna hurt anything except gas mileage. She may start rough, sometimes. That light’ll stay on, though. Lots of cars have been driven lots of miles with that light on. But, well, you know, it’s an old car.”

“That it is,” I said.

The next morning was Saturday. We were scheduled to drive to Normal for parents weekend with our son, do some tailgating, see a football game. A tailor-made trip for the Windstar, so we loaded her up and took off.

It was a sunny, crisp, college brochure picture of a day. We pulled the van into the last spot of a crowded lot, hauled out the grill, table, coolers and canvas chairs and left the hatchback open.  We met Michael’s girlfriend’s parents for the first time, grilled fajitas and drank beer. A buddy of mine from high school dropped by. We leaned against the Windstar and caught up with one another. It was a perfect day in every way. The home team even won. After the game we piled into the Winsdstar.

I glanced into the rear view mirror as we drove along the two lane highway that leads to our little town.  A now eighteen year old Anissa was asleep in the back, her face as untroubled as if she were still eight, snug and secure in the reclined seat.

Empty, harvested fields stretched across the horizon on either side. Winter approaching, the farmers are tending to their equipment in  machine sheds, already preparing for spring planting.

I patted Yolanda’s knee and we swapped smiles. I turned my attention to the open road and nudged the Windstar up to cruising speed, doing my best to ignore the orange light glowing from the dashboard.

Leave a comment

Filed under 21st Century America, Baby Boomers, Canada, Carolina Outer Bank, Family, Favorite Cars, Football, Friends, National Parks, Niagara Falls, November 2011, Road Trips, Small town America, South Padre Island