CONVERSATION for the children's hour:
Leave the TV for a little while and we'll talk about the old times. Get out the photo albums, the scrapbooks, the high school annuals. Get aboard the time machine and we'll go back to 1940 to America the beautiful.
There's Andy Hardy, Flash Gordon, Jack Armstrong, Spencer Tracy, the Wizard of Oz, bobby sox, crew cuts, bow ties, saddle shoes, jalopies, apple pie, Hoot Gibson and old FDR grinning like a fox. You can buy a Baby Ruth for a penny, a double feature movie for a dime and hear Hildegarde and "Deep Purple" on the nickelodeon.
We are calling up the innocence of small town America before the storm, a country that had not yet been homogenized and nationalized by Washington and Madison Avenue and television. I sometimes think you have had an identity imposed on you, that you have been packaged and marketed as the Pepsi Generation, the Children of the Sixties, the Youth Movement, all of you ciphers on a demographic chart. For good or ill, we escaped that. In 1940 there was no "teen market"; we were simply boys or girls, farm kids or town kids, Southerners or Yankees. And we were "ethnic," very conscious - but not self-conscious - that we were white or black, Catholic or Protestants, Polish or English. No guilt.
you could say we were normative bigots and I think that is a fair statement. People unlike us were bohunks and niggers and fish-eaters. You haven't heard that phrase - fish eaters. It meant Catholics and there was a great brawl one night at a basketball game against Father Ryan High. Someone threw dead fish on the floor and everybody knew what that meant.
Innocent, small-town America. In your heads, in 1977, you have great expectations. That is something new. In 1940, despite all the dreams and rhetoric about every man a king, there was a class structure in this country. Our fathers and uncles and older brothers and mothers and sisters, typically, quit school after the eighth grade. The census told us that only one American adult in twenty had a college education; two-thirds of the whites, ninety per cent of the blacks hadn't finished high school. We had had the New Deal for a long time and we loved Roosevelt and he made us feel better. Things had changed but not enough: 8,120,000 people were out of work - 14.6 per cent of the labor force. A factory worker averaged $25 a week, when he worked. The daily rate for farm labor was $1.59. The Grapes of Wrath was the best-selling book although I didn't know that then and can't even remember ever knowing anyone who bought books.
When you put your own children on your time machine way down the road, I would like to be aorund. I would like to know what and who you call up from the past. I called up Andy Hardy. But that was a trivial gesture, a post-facto tranquilizer, like the recollection that in 1940 Bob Feller, that corn-fed boy with apple cheeks, threw a no-hitter on opening day. The truth is that Andy Hardy doesn't speak to me over the years. It is rather your grandfather, whose story reminds me searingly that there was a hard edge on those innocent, small-town times. I see him, down on his luck, hauling us in an old Ford down to Texas and Louisiana and Tennessee and Oklahoma, looling for a job or a stake or a bonanza. He never did find anything and sold the car one day and vanished. I was in and out of a half-dozen high schools in 1940 and finally took off to Tennessee on my thumb except for a 100-mile stretch with a bunch of derelicts in an L&N coal car. There were a lot of people on the road then, looking for places to land. You got to see some of the country and you could say it was broadening. But things seemed at a dead end and you had the feeling they would never be different.
The time machine moves on. You can't talk about the Forties without talking about the war. In 1940 the German juggernaut went through Europe - Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France. The Battle of Britain began.
There was this irrational, isolationist feeling in small-town America that England would win, that we wouldn't get involved and Roosevelt was elected that year sort of promising to keep us out of war. About half the people thought then that we should never have gotten into World War I and when George Gallup asked them in late 1940 what they wanted to do about the new war, eighty-three per cent said: stay out.
War is a subject about which more books have been written and more speeches made than about almost any subject under the sun. You heard a lot about that in the 1960s.
I won't say that World War II was the best thing that happened to us. But deep down I guess I believe that. Before it came, there was a sourness in our souls, like a ball team that's had too many losing years. The war changed that. We became a "great power," which was more than a newspaper cliche. It did something for our psyches, for our souls.
Imagine this: more than 16 million men and women are in uniform. Sixteen million women are working in factories and offices. Sharecroppers and blacks and down and outers of all sorts pour into Detroit and Cleveland and Philadelphia to build, before it was over, 196,429 aircraft, 102,351 tanks, 87,620 ships of war, 372,431 artillery pieces, 2,455,964 trucks, 44 billion rounds of small arms ammunition. The economic and emotional depressions were over. There was never a doubt that we would win.
You have seen some of the war on your faithful television screen and you have read about it and heard about it - North Africa, the Pacific Islands, Italy, Normandy, "Victory at Sea," Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
You have also seen "Casablanca" and "Mrs. Miniver" and "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and other people noble and sentimental morale builders produced for the home front and the boys over there. Don't let the nobility and sentimentality obscure the facts: between 35 million and 60 million people died in the war. The rather large discrepancy in those numbers arises from our confusion over how many Chinese civilians perished. In any case, about half the dead were civilians. If you laid all those bodies head to toe they would stretch around the world and then some. You can calculate the cost in terms of tons of human meat but it is a calculation I will leave to you. It was the greatest human slaughter in the history of the world.
We didn't know about the numbers then or even care. We were ordinary Jap-hating, flame-throwing American boys who loved the beer rations, who would run Hirohito's butt right of Tokyo, who would cheerfully have gunned down the striking coal miners back home and who paid all kinds of prices for our innocent belief in our own immortality. Willie and Joe.
It takes a profane, unknowning faith to fight wars. But somehow the old sentiments survive. When it was over and at last the ships made it back to San Francisco harbor, we could see a sign on a buoy, Welcome Home Marines, and we cried like little children.
The past is all around us. The Forties left you with some great literature - Orwell, Camus, Hemingway, Mailer, Saroyan, Frost, Maugham, Hersey and Dr. Spock. There was music: "White Christmas," "That Old Black Magic," "South Pacific," "Carousel," "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Shoofly Pie and APple Pan Dowdy," which is better forgotten. Roosevelt died in the Forties. So did Al Capone, Booth Tarkington, Gertrude Stein, George Washington Carver, Kennesaw Mountain Landis and Damon Runyon.You inherited nylon, dacron, jet planes, computers, Xerox, antibiotics, the United Nations, Israel, the Chinese Revolution, the Cold War, the breakup of colonial empires, guided missiles and nuclear weapons.
We began toward the end of the decade to be aware of our racism and bigotry but those were tiny steps. The big thing, I guess, was that out of the war came a new and huge middle class. Millions of us went off to the universities on government money and came out as businessmen, engineers, lawyers, doctors, artists, scientists and politicians. We learned trades and found jobs.
We created suburbia and, more to the point, we created you, the 60 million baby-boom children, the Pepsi Generation. You have sometimes spat in our eyes and seemed hell-bent for Sodom and Gomorrah but give you a shave and haircut and Andy Hardy would know you all.