The Best Year

IS4j9uq07igfxfUntil the age of eight, I had always lived in the city, in old hotels and second-floor flats.  During the war we had moved around with my father until he was shipped overseas for the invasion of France.  When my mother died in the summer of ’44, my father was allowed to return, just missing the Battle of the Bulge; and for the next two years we lived with his mother in a small apartment in San Francisco, my father sleeping on a bed in the closet.  In 1946, on my eighth birthday, we left the foggy mists of San Francisco and moved forty miles south to sunny Palo Alto, a small, tree-shaded town spawned in the 1890s by Stanford University.  Downtown Palo Alto was a six-block stretch on University Avenue.  A few blocks north and south held most of its older residences—handsome wooden houses sporting the wide front porches of their era.  I arrived with my father and grandmother on a bright August morning, the old Oldsmobile crunching up the gravel drive of my first real house and yard. 

It was a white two-story house on Lincoln Avenue.  On the empty lot next door were apple trees and chicken coops.  The chickens were gone but feathers still clung to the bleached wood.  Across the street, my friend Pete lived in an old house with a big front porch and a white picket fence.  To go to school we walked half a block and hopped the fence onto the playing field.  On winter mornings, before the first bell, we could slide on the patches of frozen grass.  On May Day, after the parade, the public pool opened.  The crowd of splashing, screaming kids and the picnics in the surrounding park were the first signs of summer—a time for building tree forts in the great oaks, for running in sprinklers, and walking fence rails from yard to yard, plucking peaches from a cranky neighbor’s tree.

At Old Man Bolander’s neighborhood store, a dime would buy Kool-Aid, bubblegum, and a candy bar.  The only television was around the corner and down the block at Freddie Porta’s.  On Thursday nights the Portas let us congregate to watch The Lone Ranger.  It was a time before children’s days were booked solid with adult-supervised sports and lessons in every skill.  We were free to invent our own games, improvise our own toys, and devise our own projects.  There was idle time to explore in depth and reflect on the nature of things.  The toys and games, neither over-technologized nor mass-marketed, left room for creativity and imagination.

There was an aura about the late forties that seems like a vestige of all that was once good about life in this country.  I grew up with the friendly streets, front-porch serenity, and small-town sanity of postwar Palo Alto, poised between rural and suburban, blending the best of both.  I think of steam locomotives, radio serials, and Saturday matinees, of rope swings and the roar of roller skates, of long green grass in vacant lots, and hide-and-seek to the pulse of crickets in summer twilight.  We are all nostalgic for the innocence of childhood, for that warm, parental world where anything seemed possible, but there is a sense in which America in the late forties was that world writ large—the last days of American innocence.

In that idyllic interlude before the Cold War, America enjoyed an explosion of technology and a flood of new-fashioned goods, free for that moment of future complexities and inevitable problems.  With the rest of the world devastated by the war, America stood like a colossus astride the earth, with half the wealth of the world, more than half of the productivity, and nearly two-thirds of the world’s machines.  The average American’s income was fifteen times that of the average foreigner’s and most of the world’s gold still lay in Fort Knox.  We had an abundance of land, food, power, raw materials, industrial plant, monetary reserves, scientific talent, and skilled labor; and for that brief moment, we alone had the Bomb. 

My childhood, which coincided to the year with that short interim, now seems a microcosm, a metaphor for the national temper of the late forties.  The years from eight to twelve, often called the age of reason, might better be called the age of “worldly innocence”—perceiving the world as distinctly other yet still centered on oneself.  The realm of the child, which renders the larger world irrelevant, is an intimate, personal universe, a blend of fantasy and reality.  Rebounding from depression and war, the nostalgic, inward turn of American culture in the late forties captured something of this aura.2  But we cannot escape history.  Innocence fades like fresh morning dew, lost in the heat of the day.  And we can never go home to the American High.

My own awaking was coterminous with that of a nation meeting the inevitable barriers to any naïve notion of a Pax Americana.  One evening the two awakenings touched.  I often joined my father for twilight walks around the block, but only one fragment lingers in memory—a moment on Webster Street when something he was saying suddenly sank in.  The Russians, he explained, had somehow gotten the atom bomb, and the future of those placid, tree-lined streets—perhaps of all life on Earth—was now in question.  It was the fall of ’49.  I was eleven years old.

So perhaps the very best year was 1948.  For the nation, it was the eye in the storm, the calm between postwar readjustments and the nuclear precipice, McCarthyism, and the Korean War.  For me, it was the year I was invited by the family of a friend―whose eight-year-old sister I idolized―to spend a week in Palm Springs at the old Desert Inn.  Basking in the dry desert heat, playing chess poolside over endless chocolate shakes, lazing on the sprawling lawns among palms and citrus, singing along on the hayride with the grammar-school girl of my dreams—it was a euphoric feeling of oceanic freedom and utter wellbeing that I hadn’t known as a child of the war years.  For America, 1948 was just such a time.

My youth paralleled the American High with such uncanny precision that the golden years of grammar school fell precisely between D-Day and the Korean War; and high school lay in that placid interlude of the mid-fifties with the first strains of rock ’n roll and the dawning of the youth culture that would seed the sixties.  Fatherly Eisenhower presided into my college years, while the youthful Kennedy’s New Frontier was backdrop to my postgraduate time of drift and self-discovery.  I learned of his assassination as I was crossing the Bay Bridge to see my future wife.  By 1965, as the nation awakened to Vietnam, I had gained a family.  For me, and for America, the luxury of irresponsibility had ended.

The American High was an historical aberration.  My generation came of age on the crest of a technological wave and a sense of boundless promise akin to the morning of the modern age four centuries before.  But the rest of the world recovered from the war and modernization reached critical mass.  Though still on the leading edge, America could no longer enjoy hegemony apart from the inexorable price.  As the fruits of modernity spread over the planet, the world grew smaller and precariously interdependent while the leverage of the deluded and deranged grew ever larger.  It is doubtful that any nation will ever possess such a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth or dominate the globe as did America at mid-twentieth century.  Like the innocence of youth, the American High recedes into history, a latter-day Atlantis, lost in the sea of time.

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