Borrowed Time: The World at 65
Dreams and My Room
So the atomic age was underway, an age of horror, but also of wonder. Already in 1945, with the war still raging, Belmont Radio ("Today, Belmont's job is to produce high-precision electronic equipment for the Armed Forces...") was typical in offering a vision of a dazzling war-inspired future as Belmont Television: "You can pull pictures from the air as easily as you 'tune in' with your present radio...talking pictures at television's best." The image that went with Belmont's ad showed an impressive wooden cabinet perched atop which was a small screen displaying a cowboy on a bucking bronco.
"[I]n these days of tired bodies and troubled minds, it's good...to think about...the new kind of a home you will have after victory," began a 1944 ad from General Electric, while General Motors ("Victory is our business") swore in ad copy that it would "provide more and better things for more people in the coming years of peace."
Indeed, for the Third World War, aka the cold war, the arms race and the race for the good life were to be put on the same 24/7 "war" footing. In the 1950s, all the promised big ticket items, including the "electric refrigerator with ample space for everything, frozen foods included"-- it had been but a few decades since that horse and cart with ice had pulled up at my father's door--and the "new automatic clothes dryer" were to tumble into new American homes. These, not any event in history, would become the agreed upon "landmarks" of this age along with (soon enough) Mickey Mouse, the Golden Arches and the Swoosh. A military Keynesianism and its consumer doppelganger would now drive the US economy toward desire for the ever larger car and missile, electric range and tank, television console and submarine, all of which would be wedded in single corporate entities, displaying their wares in your bedroom and selling them in the labyrinthine corridors of the Pentagon.
Here was the promise: From the ashes of war, new wonders would emerge--and so they did bountifully (as well, of course, as further ashes). The buying of big-ticket--and then not-so-big-ticket--items and the making of war with the most advanced technology around, that was the dizzying story of my time (until a frazzled planet's economic system began to melt down in the fall of 2008).
But you wouldn't have known it from my room in the 1950s. In those years, after all, the "teenager" was just being discovered by the corporation. I was part of the first generation of American children who, if they had jobs, as I did every summer from the age of 14 on, didn't have to turn their money over to their families, the first to have more than spare change in their pockets and to be able to choose where to spend it.
I was, of course, living in a country where, with the exception of Pearl Harbor, and Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian islands, there had been no fighting, no ashes at all. In 1945, the United States loomed triumphantly untouched over a ruined planet, and with perfect symbolism, two of that country's secretaries of defense would, in the mid-1950s and again in the early 1960s, be plucked from the presidencies of the great automakers. ("...I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa," GM President Charles Wilson told senators at his confirmation hearings in 1953.)
The imperial vistas of the 1950s were expansively vast and clean -- and in the world of the child, looked at from the toy-stuffed, video-game filled, hand-held, ear-glued techno-universe of the twenty-first century, remarkably, sometimes even horribly, often boringly, empty, like the sightlines Baron Haussman cleared on Paris's great boulevards to gun down the mob. From the child's point of view, what's still striking about that Golden Age of suburban consumerism was the relative bareness of its interiors.
My own room would seem spare indeed today for a "middle class" family, even one like ours living deep in debt and beyond its means. My mother, the artist, painted its walls with sprightly Mother Goose scenes when I was tiny, and later with marching grenadiers, and there was a bed, a chair, at some point a small desk, a lamp, a giant wooden hand-me-down Philco radio, a few games, some books, my precious toy soldiers, a toy six-gun with holster (cowboys were the craze then), and by the end of that decade, a cheap record player for 45s (not that anyone now remembers what they were)--each limited and distinct purchase entering my life with its own special history, its own familial price tag attached.
That Philco was, for me, what we now call "the media," along with the newspapers which then seemed like the lifeblood of the city, and as in so many American houses, Life magazine. New York City was then a riot of daily reportage. After all, it still had at least eight or nine papers, and that already represented a loss in numbers. The very names of some like the Journal American (the New York American and the New York Evening Journal) or the World-Telegram & Sun (the New York World, the Evening Telegram, and the New York Sun) were amalgams of previously independent papers. And--the crucial thing in those childhood years--most of them had comics.
My favorite board game growing up was "Star Reporter." I still remember the little cards you picked that offered you, the potential star reporter, ordinary stories, but also "disasters" and "catastrophes." And then, having been assigned your story, with a role of the dice you left the city of "Urbania" to cover it. In my spare time, I dreamed of becoming a reporter--a dream that, these days, looks as outmoded as the desire to be an arctic explorer.
Here is what I grew up reading:
• Cereal boxes (I used to joke that I learned my ABCs off them--otherwise how could I send in the correct number of box tops and get the "atomic rings" and "secret decoders" they offered?)
• comic strips
• comic books (however, like many children in those years, I was forbidden from buying "horror comics")
• real books (from that radical resource, the library, where, if the librarian let you out of the children's section, you had access to anything in the adult world without having to invest a penny in it)
• MAD magazine (after the "bad" comics went down in a 1950s childhood version of an auto-da-fé)
• pulp sci-fi (the more mutants the merrier)
• foreign novels (in my later teens)
The first of those works of foreign fiction was Jorge Amado's Gabriella, Clove and Cinnamon, which I stumbled upon in a tiny neighborhood bookstore. I plunked down my money--no small thing then--not because it was intriguingly foreign and I had a yen to explore, but because each volume in its uniquely designed Avon Books paperback series had rounded corners. I bought it with one mission in mind--to ensure that my classmates and others, noting the strangely shaped book I was carrying around, would conclude that I was a far odder and more interesting character than, in those days, I felt I had any right to be, or was. So painfully straight, I desperately wanted others to think I was, if not "cool," then at least just a little "crazy" (a category gaining something of a cachet in those days as hip-ness came into style among the young).
No one, of course, ever noticed, but having that paperback in my hands, I naturally read it, which is why--since I kept on buying from the series--I've always said that it doesn't matter how you get to a book, as long as you get there.
This, then, was the way that, from the privacy of my relatively empty world, in the financial capital of the globe's great, throbbing superpower, I tried to sneak a few peeks, like that wonderful later children's fictional character, Harriet the Spy, at a mysterious adult world you couldn't access by clicking a remote to some "reality" show or Oprah.