Friday, September 16, 2016

Stuck Between Stations

As I wind up my 6th decade and my physical and mental decrepitude ratchets up exponentially. I realize more and more how it was for my folks and their frustration at feeling that the times had passed them by. I regarded their physical aches and pains and technology aversion with impatience. A future that I will have no part of portends and I guess that my acceptance of this has inspired me to further explore my parents' time via a couple of documentaries.

The first is one about Leopold and Loeb. I have always been fascinated by crime and punishment. Perhaps the germ of this is my father's recounting in detail to me (at far too young an age) the cases of the Lindbergh baby, Sacco and Vanzetti and the two privileged young Jewish prodigies, united by a fascination with Nietzsche, who plotted what they intended to be “the perfect crime.” This case was of particular interest to my father as the perpetrators were Jewish. My father was never religious but he experienced discrimination nevertheless and took a special interest in the trials and triumphs of our people. The documentary doesn't much augment Dad's meticulous recounting except for an examination of Clarence Darrow's defense strategy. Leopold and Loeb was Darrow's last case before retirement and his final argument to the jury took over twelve hours. For the first time in the history of American jurisprudence Darrow argued for mercy because the murderers suffered from psychological trauma. I imagine that there was no expectation of exoneration but the killers were spared the death penalty, Loeb was murdered in prison. Leopold was released from in 1958, moved to Puerto Rico, married and worked as a medical technician until his death in 1971.

My mom was fascinated with wealth and society, and like my dad, always proud when Jews hit the stratosphere. Mom noted that Wallis Simpson's second husband Ernest Simpson was Jewish. Even though Ernest was jilted by Wallis, Mom kvelled at this single degree of separation from the King of England. A documentary however reveals some recently discovered letters that were written by Wallis Simpson. In a nutshell, Wallis was simply playing around in London society while her husband was in the U.S. on business. When Edward professed his love for her and eagerness to abdicate the throne she was caught off guard and felt trapped. She proceeded to divorce Ernest. The trove of letters reveals that she considered Edward a boring simp and that Ernest was indeed the love of her life. Even better for the Jews! Mom would have been elated.

While my parents were titillated by crime and scandal, more than anything, their consciousnesses were shaped by The Depression and World War II. My sister was born in 1943 and issued a ration book. My father, due to a stammer, was unfit for service but worked a swing shift on an assembly line at Lockheed that operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Just about every day the cavernous factory would reverberate as a test plane crashed and exploded on the adjacent field. Despite the loss of life, the workers, weeping, continued to churn out P-80 Shooting Stars.

I am half way through Ken Burns' seven part series, The War. I've been exposed, running a film archive, to more WWII footage than many but this extended narrative, enriched by some extraordinary oral histories from soldiers and their families is profoundly engaging, albeit painful to watch. While Burns work is sometimes more than a little florid, I am awed to witness the genesis of what so profoundly scarred my parents and the parents of my contemporaries.

Burns recounts examples of rampant and cruel bigotry but despite this, patriotism prevailed. Young Japanese-American men volunteered and served while their families were interred in spartan, isolated camps. Black soldiers served loyally, despite ridicule and segregated units. Mexican and Native Americans overlooked their marginalization and fought bravely and died on the battlefield. On the home front the war informed just about every facet of existence. Despite deep pockets of hatred and ignorance, the U.S. was one nation, united in a single purpose. Times are such that, despite the atrocious footage that never gets easier to watch, I can't help but wish for a less polarized America. It is an affront to the nation's sacrifice; bloodshed, Gold Star Mothers, Victory Gardens, rationing...that 2016 finds us having learned so little.

World War Two played more significantly than any other force in the shaping of my parents' generation. When my own children find their times difficult to bear and retreat to an exploration of what shaped my era, the result will likely be more nuanced. The JFK and subsequent assassinations certainly served to harden us and sap us of the romantic patriotism engendered by the Second World War. The moon landing showed us what we're capable of. We watched the Vietnam War play out on tv as we ate our dinner every night. Treacly sit-coms with lily white casts showed us what our families were lacking. There's nothing as large and long as a justifiable world war to bring us together.

It is staggering to look at the 2nd World War by the numbers. 2 million military trucks. 4000 warships. 300,000 American soldiers killed. 72 million deaths worldwide. Air carriers that required the assembly of over a million parts. Stretchers. Body bags. Provisions. Telegrams to apprise families of their dead children. It is amazing to think that this was all accomplished with pens, pencils, typewriters, telegraph, adding machines and an ocean of carbon paper. Military logistics are not my forte but after imagining World War Two it is chilling to think that the war machine has evolved along with other facets of our lives. I imagine how much better and efficiently we can do war. How strange that sophisticated technological advances coexist in a world that seems to grow more base and primitive with every passing day.

Perhaps for Baby Boomers the advent of technology most defines our time on earth. I get my lunch or a ride home from the bar with a single swipe on my phone. I communicate with millions of people all over the world in an instant. A stupid rumor goes viral in a nanosecond. There are cameras everywhere and e-mail hackers. The only private place is in your head but sometimes targeted advertising is so frighteningly dead-on I doubt if even that's the case.

What will be the benchmarks that inform my children's lives? Driving down Figueroa, in front of the House of Pancakes we learn about the World Trade Center. Since there have been so many terrorist attacks and mass shootings that they don't even register as formative events. My kids are used to technology evolving at a breakneck pace, as they've never known anything else. They glom onto the efficiency and creativity technological advances facilitate but while I remain in constant awe, this is what they expect. Unfortunately they have never had much to rally their patriotism and terrorism for them is just as inevitable as death, taxes or a new model I phone. How will my grandchildren reflect upon their own parent's legacy? I don't have much imagination for this. It is too daunting to think about the future. My dad would hold my kids on his lap and tell them about seeing an airplane for the first time. He'd stroke their heads and sigh, “I wonder what they'll see.” My boys are men. My own mind and body decline a bit with every passing year. Hope, however, stays on the upswing.

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