THE PERILS OF UNFETTERED NOSTALGIC DESIRE
Why Conservative Longing For a Past “Golden Age” Will Surely Disappoint. It’s Called “Reality.”
Growing up in Rochester, New York, I had what I call a good childhood. We, my father, mother, brother and me lived in Greece, NY, a western suburb of the city. And my dad, like several of my neighbor’s dad’s, worked for the Eastman Kodak Company, the city’s largest employer. Over the broad reach of my own nostalgia, the mid 1950’s until the mid 1960’s when I left for college, my memories of that time are pretty dammed good. This is also this period, the 1950’s, which are often cited by conservatives as a far better time when there was no racism, everybody had good job, and every American was a compassionate, generous and loving Christian. The 1950’s period in our history, is that time which Phyllis Schafley of The Eagle Forum fame would, in the 1980’s, refer to as she exhorted women to stay home, take care of the house, raise the kids and attend to Father’s needs. So I’m going to cite the decade between 1955 and 1965 as one of the Golden Ages conservatives point to as their ideal image of what true blue America looked like. (This, I realize, is not the Tea Party’s American Golden Age since they seem to think the more distant 17th and 18th Centuries more represent their ideals of small government and personal responsibility. But I don’t really give a shit about what the Tea Party believes).
I lived in a neighborhood of single-family homes, largely occupied by first and second generation German and Italian immigrants. Most of my friends’ fathers were factory workers but we had a couple of self-employed entrepreneurs as well. One owned a tool and die company, the other was an accountant. Directly across the street from my house, 223 Mill Road, was an auto mechanic with three kids and as many cars in the driveway at any given time. By and large it was an upper-working to lower-middle class neighborhood. The “neighborhood” I’m referring to, my local after-school stomping grounds, stretched from the corner of Mill Road and North Avenue to about a mile to the west. Along this stretch were fourteen or fifteen bungalow-style houses nearly all with two to four kids of various ages. We never had any murders, no one’s house was broken into, no kidnappings or hostage takings or terrorist attacks. All in all, it was pretty peaceful and, no question, a really great place to grow up in.
Driving along Mill Road back then (and today as well) what one observed were large, neatly trimmed green lawns, (our house was situated on four acres), flowering ornamental trees gracing front yards, neat flower beds fronting the three and four bedroom houses, evergreen shrubs and bushes in profusion adorning the outside with not a single siding exhibiting peeling paint or a hanging gutter to be seen. And while this was – and is – real, it is a reality only “of sorts.” This pretty picture wasn’t the entire story by a long shot as my short list below illustrates.
Sometime around eleven or twelve years old the patina of that period’s oft-cited wellspring of idealist Americana, began to tarnish for me. It began with my own family. I think it was in 1957 that my brother and a friend of his were arrested for “joy-riding” as it was then known, with a subsequent two paragraph piece about the incident in the Rochester Times Union, much to my undying shame.
But this opening breach was followed by a number of other revelations – some discovered on my own, others related to me by my friends contemporaneously or in subsequent years. In this fifteen house stretch of ideal suburbia between the mid 1950’s until the mid 1960’s, here is a list of nostalgia tarnishing events and occurrences that I’m aware of:
1. The hour and a half lunches that our local Postman spent at one of my neighbor’s across the street from me, sorting the day’s deliveries, I guess. Remember, few wives worked back then. They were all at home during the day. (And at least one was very busy!)
2. The woman who lived next door to the postal accommodating adulteress, had a several years long extramarital affair with an Italian father three doors down from me. She and her three kids eventually joined forces with the guy and his three kids. I never heard about any marriage vows though.
3. The childless guy down towards the western end of the neighborhood who’s house was next to Larkin Creek that we frequently frequented, whom I later learned as an adult, had molested just about every young female in the neighborhood at one time or another. Your basic fondling, so I was told, so as not to risk arrest I suppose. And he never was. Arrested, that is. Smart man, of sorts.
4. Then there were the four ideal, All-American, family fathers who beat their wives and children on a regular basis. Of course one has to realize that back in the 50’s beating one’s wife and children was not considered very serious. It was simply run of the mill Americana.
5. Then there where were two mothers in the neighborhood who suffered from mental illness, one of whom would lock her naked kids outside the house during winter time when it was below zero, blowing and snowing. My mother intervened one time and called the cops on another occasion. As far as I know no “help” was ever provided.
6. The one young woman who’s house was next to Larkin Creek and across from the female molester, who suffered from Down’s Syndrome. She was basically considered a monster. Except for me and my friends’ infrequent visits, she was alone, isolated and ostracized.
7. The four or five fathers that I’m aware of in the neighborhood who were alcoholics – my father included – who never received any form of treatment. And beat their wives and kids. Don’t know how many of the wives were alcoholics. It just wasn’t something 1950’s folks discussed.
8. The oldest son of my neighbor across the street was a sexual abuser. Allegedly with more than one young woman. He was never charged with anything although several neighbors knew about him and his “antics.”
This, my short list, are the incidents and accidents that readily come to mind from my All American past today in 2014.
So even back then we all engaged in fantasy narrative creation, highlighting those positive, moral and family-values aspects that helped us to weather the pitfalls and hazards of life while never uttering a single word about the illness, violence, immorality and deception that was occurring behind those pretty facades of those fifteen suburban bungalows every day. And while I think my neighborhood was pretty typical of suburban life in America back then, (it was) and indeed, it was certainly a great place in which to grow up, it was no Golden Age no matter what the conservative nostalgia buffs might say. This is what conservatives are expert at – the denial of reality in favor of fictionalized narratives that bear no resemblance to the real world that we all live in.
I don’t believe that my neighborhood, as ordinary and banal as it was, represented anything other than the very “Golden Age” of patriotism, family values and upstanding citizenry that the right wing constantly blathers on about. But my own experience gives lie to such fantastical claims. But then, I’m not a fan of propaganda posing as reality. I prefer the unvarnished truth even if it makes me uncomfortable. Even if it is at odds with what we would all like to believe is the unmitigated goodness and piety of America.
Unfortunately, however, no matter how brightly golden conservatives might paint these fictional, All American, Family Value nostalgic times, I’m betting that at least a few of the victims in my neighborhood are still carrying some not so “golden” scars even today.
Have a good day.