Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Elephant in Every Boomer's Room

President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense McN...Image via Wikipedia

When I was writing my coming-of-age book, DEED SO which is set in the early Sixties, I created many characters who were Greatest Generation folk, because they were the parents, aunts, uncles, teachers and neighbors of the young people who were at the center of my story. The world the kids inhabited as they were growing up was built and controlled by this Greatest Generation. World War II and its predecessor, the Great Depression, modeled their parents in indelible ways, and it was this crucible of formative experiences, that made the GGs who they were, and explained how they set up their society. The postwar world they created was a direct reaction to the upheavals they had survived. Their new reality was all about normalcy, stability, predictability, calm, politeness, loyalty, productivity, patriotism, cohesiveness, and, despite the Cold War, peace, at least at home. They focused on family and community, not global travel or saving the Guatemalan nuthatch.

It was hard for Boomers to understand why all this serenity was so vital to their elders. They knew about the depression and the global war. How could they not? The evidence was all around them, and not just on Veteran's Day. But knowing about events and living through them are vastly different things. A Boomer could try to image what dangling from a parachute over Normandy at night was like when it appeared half the world was shooting at you, but the visceral impact was always just out of reach. Programs like Victory at Sea and Twentieth Century aired ever Sunday. Of course, we know now how edited the documentary footage was, and we realize that when they were watching, our parents were piecing in the horrific stuff between the splices. It was obvious that older people saw those events through different eyes, but try as we might, we couldn't approximate the terror of swimming away from a burning oil slick in the Pacific as your ship went under. To us the GGs were heroes, to them they were survivors. When asked, most GGs would not share their gastly experiences. For them to talk of such things was to awaken the evil and allow it to contaminate the peaceful environment they had built. The elephant in the living room of every Baby Boomer was always World War II.

Rocking the boat, causing a scene or bringing too much attention to yourself was considered very bad. Because of the safe world surrounding them, Boomers themselves looked at change or novelty as positive, whereas their parents looked at it as negative. My father was absolutely sure that another depression was just around the corner, and that every international disturbance would involve us in a shooting war. I remember how tense our house was during the Hungarian Revolution and the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a kid, it was impossible for me to understand how those events could possibly affect me. My parents were reacting to invisible threats, but they were reacting, so I walked on eggs.

I know much has been made about the impact of the constant threat of nuclear annihilation on the Boomer psyche. Truth be told, it didn't bother me except for the time I got gum in my braids from crawling under my desk. We dutifully ducked and covered because of the elephant in the room. We practiced a lot of behaviors, from cleaning our plates to saving rubber bands, because of that elephant.

In the late Sixties we rejected the behaviors of compliance in favor of protest, experimentation and abandonment of inhibition. We escaped the room and the pachyderm. I think I have a deeper understanding today of why our late teen and early adult years were so traumatic for the GGs. It wasn't so much the changes we sought as the risks we took in pursuing them. Given the way they were wired, we always looked like we were destroying the house in an attempt to remodel the garage. "Leave well enough alone" was their motto, and "no stone unturned" was ours.

And now as Boomers begin their exit from the stage, we have to ask what sort of elephant we have left in the room for our kids? I know it is a gray elephant. I just hope it isn't a Dorian Gray elephant.
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