Monday, December 6, 2010

Colors of Autumn Verging on Winter

As I go for a walk around the neighborhood the leaves from November are still on the ground.

They pile up, they crunch under my feet, and a few blow away at a time. These leaves, deeply layered in the gutter, remind me of how I felt during another autumn long ago.

We were nearing the end of the year nineteen hundred and sixty-three and the world was about to change.

Bad News
In stating to the mildly curious the main challenge of the Van Winkle Project I often bring out a description of myself as a "life-long news addict." Life-long is a bit of hyperbole; it's actually only been most of my life. I can pinpoint, however, with some precision the beginning of my strong connection to the news. I have in my possession the first newspaper I ever felt compelled to save.

It was as if I had to carefully place the paper with its blaring red headline inside my cardboard box of childhood trinkets in order to verify that it was no dream. The man who was so witty, had the photogenic smile, walked beside the beautiful wife and two little children, that man, our president, really was dead. Cut down by bullets in the streets of Dallas about the time I was walking home from elementary school to have lunch.

It's still the saddest souvenir in our house.

A Conjunction of Events
It so happened at the time of this national tragedy that my parents had already planned a Thanksgiving trip for themselves and their three sons. It was to be the biggest and most costly trip we had ever made together. We were taking the passenger train all the way from Wyoming to visit my aunt and uncle in San Diego.

We would be boarding the long line of mustard yellow cars pulled by the Union Pacific diesel locomotive. For the next two days we would rattle along the rails day and night, making our way across mountains and deserts.

Our upcoming journey...marked in red.
 My pending excitement clashed with the shock and grief that all of us were experiencing. But the tickets had been bought, the plans were made. We would go.

Monday was the day of the late president's funeral and declared a "national day of mourning." We stood at the railroad station and moved toward the tracks where the passenger cars were dripping fluids and making strange chuffing noises. Right on schedule, about the time speakers were orating over the flag draped coffin of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in the U.S. Capitol building, we boarded the train.

Stay Within the Lines
We were hurtling into the empty spaces of the American West. The best views were obtained from high up in the vista dome car. Fenceless plains, herds of antelope in the distance, hawks circling the sky. At night a person could lie back and look up at the stars twinkling on the other side of the Plexiglas.

The vista dome car...
Though our parents were trying to economize, they had decided we could have another treat. We would eat in the dining car. A black man in immaculate white uniform led us to our table where we sat down to a starched table cloth and napkins, heavy silverware. We were handed menus. And coloring books and crayons for the boys.

Today that coloring book is also a part of my collection of childhood keepsakes. A couple of things in it stand out.

First, I can turn to the inside page and marvel at the introductory letter written to "Dear Parents." The second paragraph is remarkable for consisting entirely of a single 55-word sentence that would be more than slightly challenging to diagram with all its modifying phrases offset by commas.

Forty-seven years later would any one who wished to represent a major corporation to the general public dare to write to them in such a toney, literate fashion?

And the coloring book reminds me that more than the way we wielded language was about to change. Consider what the following pages say about what we today call "gender roles."

Ah, the gentle sexism of post-war America. Dad gets to bring home the bacon; Mom gets to cook it--except for when she's on vacation!

But it was a world I still believed in whole heartedly, In fact, in turning the pages of the coloring book I find the Crayola evidence of a little boy who questioned very little, who believed at that point in his life that success could be judged by one main criteria: coloring scrupulously within the lines. I sure did have that figured out...

Doesn't the boy color neatly?
Ships Ahoy!
When we got to San Diego we were greeted by my uncle who was a flight deck officer in the navy, responsible for the launches and landings of jet aircraft on board his ship. When he wasn't away sailing, Uncle joined his family in in military housing on North Island Naval Air Station. My uncle's ship? The mighty aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Constitution, or as he and other sailors called it, "The Connie."

Uncle's ship, The U.S.S. Constellation
That was when my first disappointment arrived. We were able to take a harbor cruise past the moored destroyers and cruisers and I looked up, up, up and beheld the enormous CV-64, the Connie. Yes, that was impressive, but it paled next to what I had hoped for: a ship-board tour above and below decks. The tour was cancelled due to the Kennedy assassination.

From an ocean-level perspective I craned my neck to look at the red, white and blue flying from poles at the sterns of all the ships. They hung at half mast. Ship after ship. It was the same thing.

On the Beach
It was the oddest Thanksgiving. I have no memory of Thanksgiving turkey or pumpkin pie, although I know we consumed them. For those Americans of a younger vintage, imagine if September 11th attacks had taken place on, say, November 24th and a few days later you sat down to eat a feast and tally what you were grateful for. The juxtaposition of holiday and reality was jarring and painful.

Despite the metaphorical clouds hanging over the country that week, I did have one great experience lying ahead of me. For the first time I was going to be taken to the beach and see the vast ocean.

I couldn't get enough of it. The waves lapping my ankles, the sound of the water coming ashore, the way the air smelled, the feeling of the gritty but ultimately soft sand beneath my toes, the gulls screaming and swooping chaotically overhead. For a kid who was most familiar with alkaline gulches, sage brush and tumbleweeds on the Wyoming plains, this was like discovering a new planet.

And there were shells to pick up. Even finer, some of them, my cousin told me, were called "sand dollars." The ocean coughed up money! I gathered as many as I could, knowing even as a I did it that I would only be allowed to take home a few.

Photo by Royce Bair
Home Again
As we slipped into December, I was supposed to be thinking about Santa Claus and the toy I wanted under the Christmas tree, but I remained haunted by what had happened just a few weeks earlier.

The leaves had fallen upon our lives and it would be good while before they blew away, still longer before the season changed and something green came again into the world around us.

Back yard of our Wyoming house, early 1960s
I went out to the garage and found the loosely wrapped package containing the shells we'd brought back from California. I took the contents out to the concrete steps behind the house and laid everything in rows in the sunlight.

It was a rather warm winter's day in Wyoming, though you knew that it wouldn't be long before we saw our share of snow and ice.

For now I enjoyed the shells and how sand tumbled out of their hidden recesses. Soon the shell collection would end up in my bedroom. One day a sand dollar would be dropped and it would shatter in the floor. It would have to be swept up and thrown away.

Other changes awaited me. I would cease to think that the epitome of accomplishment consisted of coloring within the lines. Colors bounded by emphatically drawn lines would start to remind me of the world map and of places called North and South Vietnam. Those formerly obscure nations had caused my uncle and the Connie to sail to the Gulf of Tonkin. War would rage for years. Jets uncle watched take off would drop over 20,000 tons of bombs in 1968 alone.

Great blooming orange, yellow, and red explosions.

As history worked itself out, it would become tragically obvious that we could pour rivers of red, in the form of blood from over 47,000 of our dead and 200,000 wounded and maimed, and still we couldn't bring to pass what presidents and generals sought. We couldn't keep the colors separate and behind the lines.

As a reaction to a world that still wished to insist on rigid lines and well ordered colors, I would witness many of my generation being drawn to the brightest shades of light they could find, even ones that didn't "belong together." This era of the Peter Max poster and the acid trip has been called "The Sixties." It was really just a handful of years, a hundred key record albums, lots of improvised clothing outfits, many substances ingested perhaps too cavalierly, and two more assasinations.

Then it ended.

In college my roommates and fellow Yalies were intent on becoming doctors and lawyers and Wall Streeters, i.e., they were very much about coloring and staying inside the lines. Which, I tell my own son today, is valuable, is needed. Ultimately it contributes to the "glue" that holds society together.

But I can see now that I would never again be so much like that young boy with the coloring book. Though I would do the right things for the most part, I had read the news. And I knew what the news could do: take away your innocence, sometimes with a single headline. My assumption that everything was mostly fine was in the past. I was wiser now. The lines and the carefully chosen colors they contained could all be undone in a flash. - V.W.

Leaves down the street from our house. Still hanging on as of Dec. 5, 2010.

No comments:

Post a Comment