A photo caption accompanying an essay in Style yesterday friday on the 1940s gave an incorrect location for the first Levittown. It is in New York. (Published 09/25/1999)
YOU'D ASK YOUR MOTHER, "What was it like in the olden days?"
Not the cavalcade of treaties and earthquakes, the history book stuff, but what it felt like to be alive then.
How could she explain . . . the dusty heat of '50s television sets . . . men who whistled (with trills) and wore hats tipped to one side and got killed in wars . . . the champagne disenchantment of the '20s . . . what it felt like . . .
Fifth in a series.
Pack of Pall Malls in my pocket, Vitalis on my hair, penny loafers, sport coat with the shirt collar spread over it so I'm all shoulders and shoes walking into the drugstore. Whistling "Fools Rush In" with all the trills.
And I know every jitterbug break in the book.
My girlfriend Arlene--sharp little bobby sox, sweater and pearls--says when popular dances get violent it means there's going to be a war.
I say: "Arlene, I don't think you're gonna start any wars."
She takes it all wrong, like it's an insult. Dames, who can figure them? She won't let me past first base, anyway.
Some things are more important than women. Bogart knows that: Check out "The Maltese Falcon" and "Casablanca."
DiMaggio hits safe in 56 straight games. You can get work. I got a job in the new government plant. Women working there now, even some colored guys.
Building stabilizer fins for the British on Lend-Lease.
Build them for the Eskimos for all I care, as long as we stay out of the war.
My old man was in the last war and he's still sorry. He says: "Make the world safe for democracy." You bet, pal.
The Germans and the Japanese are nuts, that newsreel of Hitler dancing around when the French surrendered. Let them fight it out over there.
Then it's a Sunday morning. I'm out back trying to get my jalopy to start, and Mom hollers out the back door with this amazed, right-now sound in her voice. I run inside. She's not just listening to the radio, it's like she's watching it. I hear "Japanese" and "Pearl Harbor." Goddam sneak attack.
The next morning, there's a line around the block at the recruiting station. I'm in it. Forget my old man, forget the America Firsters and the isolationists, forget my job--let Arlene do it.
Everybody agrees. That's what's so wild. Businessmen, professors, Republicans, Democrats, the unions, Wall Street, everybody. Has this ever happened before in this country?
It's like what they say now: Forget it, Mac--there's a war on.
Cordley Electric drinking fountains have gone to sea!
Mogul Metallizing Gives Wings to Paratroopers!
Joe's the boy for WORK. And till we measure the Axis partners for some snug wood vests, he'll have little time for play. So Joe keeps his morale hitched high with long-wearing clothes . . .
Scratch one Zero! Wherever Navy buzzard-busters swing into action, you'll probably find Synthane!
Bleak horizontal war world . . . boot camp drill fields in pre-dawn . . . drill sergeant's power-grinder voice YOUR OTHER LEFT JACKSON YOU GODDAM HILLBILLY . . . the heft of new web-belts and canvas packs, the compression of a helmet YOU WILL KEEP THAT CHIN STRAP BUCKLED YOU ARE NOT SOME MOVIE ACTOR . . . the hikes . . . CLOSE IT UP BACK THERE YOU'RE LAGGING with 70 pounds of pack, entrenching tool, canteen, extra boots, gas mask, M-1 rifle . . . staring at the back of somebody's neck, everything in rows . . . bunks, barracks, the latrine with its rows of commodes whose seats are always warm from the last guy . . . the loneliness . . .
Please don't call long distance this Christmas--war calls come first.
Vitality Shoes fit the victory tempo!
What Comfort and Efficiency with Tampax--Women's monthly sanitary problems more acute during wartime.
You're writing to a soldier in Italy. You know he isn't in love with you, he's in love with the idea of having a girl back home, the way you were in love with having a soldier thinking about you over there. It feels wrong to write him a Dear John letter, and it feels wrong not to. Did you lead him on? Then he gets killed and you cry and cry without being sure what you're crying for.
Sometimes you wish you were married. Dearest Jim, You are the proud papa of a six-pound, three-ounce bouncing baby boy. . . . But a girl down the street was just home from the maternity ward and a staff car pulls up, the officer knocks on the door to tell her that her husband was killed at Guadalcanal.
You keep hearing about them. Johnny Vudraskis, the butcher's son, got a posthumous Medal of Honor in North Africa. Your second cousin Bill missing at sea . . . you had the worst crush on him in Atlantic City that time.
Dance with sailors at the canteen, put their hats on your head and look cute, hair bouncing.
Your best friend has a little girl--they go to the beach, and the little girl keeps running up to boys in uniform and saying: "Are you my daddy?"
Get a job at an ammo plant. Have to work with a chemical called tetryl, it dyes your hair orange. You don't want other women thinking you dye your hair. You get another job typing at the Office of Price Administration . . . people complain about their rations . . . rich woman in a huff--she has a house with six bedrooms, you give her fuel oil for two . . . shortages of meat, gas, stockings . . . Some women color their legs brown like stockings and draw the seam lines up their calves with a mascara pencil.
Government poster says:
Use it up,
Wear it out,
Make it do,
Or do without.
Warm thick smell of berthing compartments on troop ships, like fresh bread made out of old undershirts and cigarette butts. Stack the troops four high on canvas pallets . . . hear water rushing past the hull . . . rough weather--guy on top rack upchucks, it drips . . . guys skidding and falling in it . . . all these bodies and you're lonely, bored, scared . . . crap games, decks of cards so worn they're soft . . . skipper says all the Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth cheesecake has to come down.
After '42 and the battles of Midway and the Coral Sea, you know we're going to win, it's just a job now . . . North Africa, moving up Italy . . . you hear about the zoot suit riots in Los Angeles, GIs beating up Mexicans . . . same stuff in World War I, race riots, people go crazy during wars . . . you're writing to a girl, she sends you her picture but then she stops writing . . .
Then a strip of land like a pencil mark on the wall. Landing craft circle for hours and you're scared, praying to Saint Mike, the embattled sword guy . . . rows of bullets flash in the water, then the artillery zeroes in . . . explosions that move the whole world sideways, hammer you down into yourself, and then one so close it feels like it blew the soul right out of you . . . the amazements of blood, the back-of-the-throat smell of bodies in the sun . . . the terrible truth of the first dead enemy you see . . . he's just a guy like you . . . rubble, whores . . . Roosevelt dies, a nation mourns, you're walking through mud, looking for a C-ration with fruit cocktail.
Life's reet when you dig that beat,
on the sunny, sunny side of the street!
--Tommy Dorsey and the Clark Sisters (The Sentimental Sisters of Swing)
In House Beautiful, Cpl. Donald K. Peterson writes about his dream house: "There will be a new and changed United States, and I want my house to be in keeping with this new spirit--a home in which the use of transparent plastic and the frosty silver of duraluminum will fit."
We drop atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Time magazine tells us: "The knowledge of victory was as charged with sorrow and doubt as with joy and gratitude" because the bomb created "a bottomless wound in the living conscience of the race."
Unless you're on Okinawa, staging to invade the home islands of Japan.
Bright wild air of back-home America--traffic jams, factory whistles and the colors--wallpaper, curtains, magazine stands, Texaco signs; the smell of sunlit car upholstery, your girlfriend's hair. The future sparkles in front of you like a weekend ocean. Everything is possible.
Vets hang around the soda shop. They're in the 52-20 Club--the government gives them $20 a week for a year. They wear their old high school clothes, but they haven't lost their combat faces yet--a hard, too-calm look. Sitting in the booths all day.
"Going to be another depression, you always get them after wars. Then you end up fighting another war."
"Next war, pal, nobody has to go because it'll be all atom bombs and V-2 rockets, and there won't be nobody left."
"Next thing you hear about atomic power it'll be under the hood of your car and heating your house."
"Russians won't have the atom bomb for 10 years."
"House, that's a laugh. GI Bill gives you a $2,000 secured loan and try and find one."
"All I want is a car, but I'm not bribing some salesman to get it."
"They'll put up prefab houses with radiant heating and electric kitchens."
"Sure, when the construction unions stop shutting down the prefab plants you'll get prefabs."
"Unions are full of communists. Truman ought to get after them."
"You seen lady wrestling yet?"
Like the song says (girls in saddle shoes, walking down the street, snapping fingers and singing together):
You've got to ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive,
E-lim-in-ate the negative,
Latch on to the affirmative
And don't mess with Mr. In-Between.
Quonset huts go up on the university golf course for married men. They never would've dreamed of going to college but what the hell, the GI Bill tuition, room and board, a great deal.
Except for these fraternity jerks in their letter sweaters . . .
"Say there, aren't you a freshman?"
"You're supposed to be wearing your beanie."
"I bet I am."
Then you take away their girlfriends. You've got more money for dates, and girls know you're serious about getting married. By senior year, you're married to the former queen of the Tri-Delts and living in a converted garage with beaverboard walls and a deep-sink for the dishes, but it's home. The former Tri-Delt queen reads aloud from Fannie Hurst, the novelist: "A sleeping sickness is spreading among the women of the land. . . . They are retrogressing into . . . that thing known as The Home." You both get a laugh. But don't kid her about it, don't even think of saying anything like "a woman's place is in the home," or she'll brain you.
A raw, jagged feeling to things: Bulldozers twitch across sad farms at the edge of town, cinder blocks rise out of cellar holes. William Levitt builds 17,447 houses on 6,000 acres in four years. Children everywhere. Houses full of the fat stink of Mom's Toni home permanents and the scorched sawdust from Dad's basement hobby shop. Breezeways! Carports! Every Saturday another friend pulls into your driveway with a new little Crosley that looks like a Piper Cub without the wings; or a torpedo-back Chevy, or the low fat Hudson that goes 120 miles an hour.
The critics, the intellectuals . . . they hate the suburbs but they like Jackie Robinson breaking the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers. What they don't understand is these things go together in America, it's all part of the same energy, two sides to everything.
You get a musical like "South Pacific," about America ruling the world, and then you get a play like "Death of a Salesman" about the American Dream falling apart.
People say everybody hates Harry Truman. Then they reelect him.
Private life is everything, people keep saying. But if it's private why do they keep saying it?
Picture windows! So people can look in and see your beautiful Christmas tree. Or your new television: The whole neighborhood drops by to see Milton Berle on "Texaco Star Theater," and Sugar Ray Robinson in the ring--the most beautiful fighter who ever lived, women love him.
You think about racism, communism--the world gets huge--the politics, the corporations where it's like the military. You wear a white shirt and become a team player, and if you don't mind moving all over the country you get promoted.
Everybody's moving up, everybody's middle class now. But people look at each other and say: "How long can it last?" The boom. The bomb. Loyalty oaths--crazy--you think a real commie won't lie and sign the oath? Then the Russians set off an atom bomb years ahead of schedule, and the communists take over China. Who the hell is responsible? Alger Hiss looks more and more like exactly the kind of upper-class creep who'd hand over secrets to the Reds.
There's a feeling that you can't take anything for granted anymore, you're not sure what to teach your children, except don't sit around in a wet bathing suit, that's how you get polio. The Kinsey Report comes out saying we're all sexual deviates. You look at people at cocktail parties and you say: "Are they doing that stuff? Am I missing something?"
Cocktail parties! Whoever thought you'd be going to cocktail parties?
O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain we keep sending to the starving Europeans no matter how much the New England chicken farmers complain. There's a feeling of fate in the air, good and bad, anything is possible, that's the message of the bomb, the United Nations, Judy Garland singing with that break-your-heart catch of amazement in her voice, Life magazine showing pictures of Jackson Pollock dripping house paint on canvas and asking "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?"
If only it weren't for those goddam communists and the nightmare you can't get out of your mind after reading "1984" by George Orwell. On the other hand: Do the Russians have a million televisions? Do they understand that it's Howdy Doody time?
It's like you're on a train that's not just speeding up, but getting bigger and bigger in some infinite Einsteinian equation. Is it going to blow up? Is everybody on the train? Will we ever be able to get off?
CAPTION: Halfway through the American century, the 1940s were the American decade. In World War II, the country's industrial might and technological prowess helped it to win a conflict whose end was sealed with a kiss on Times Square. In one of the first skirmishes of the Cold War--the Russian blockade of West Berlin--we prevailed with a massive airlift. Baseball's Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio, triumphed with a combination of grace and athleticism. Toward the end of the decade, in the contest of New Jersey potato field vs. developer, the suburb of Levittown came out on top.
CAPTION: In the arts, Judy Garland starred in a string of Technicolor musicals, and TVs began popping up in many homes, promising a multitude of cultural diversions, albeit in black-and-white. In politics, the involvement of Alger Hiss in a spy scandal marked the beginnings of the "Red Scare" and helped propel Richard Nixon to the vice presidency four years after Harry Truman won the 1948 election, journalism's most famously wrong headline notwithstanding.