The Defining Generation
It was one of those moments in a young boy’s life that stamps itself so indelibly upon the mind that the picture becomes eternally imprinted upon that area of the brain that contains the memories of a lifetime. Fifty years later when the picture resurfaces, I have to stop and chuckle and wonder, "Was it really like that?"
It was Sunday evening and the sun had fallen beyond the horizon. Twilight hung somewhere between sunset and full night. There were at least two-dozen of us, which comprised most of the kids who lived on the same block in Grants Pass, Oregon. We sat grouped together in the early fall chill, scattered across the lawn in eager anticipation as we peered intently through a large picture window. None of us dared to fear the worst, that the inhabitants of the house that was the object of our attention would close their drapes. This was the ONLY house on the block with a television set.
There was little to fear. The year was 1956 and the inhabitants were members of a generation that only a decade earlier had fought and successfully won a world war, then returned with maturity beyond their youth to build the American Dream. That dream was an ideal lifestyle: a perfect little house with a white picket fence, a kitchen adorned with the newest appliances, and a late model car parked in the shelter of the garage. Theirs was a generation that took pride in its accomplishments during the war, as well as subsequent success in American society in the years that followed. Technology was advancing at a pace unprecedented in world history, and the truest mark of success was the ability to purchase the most recent gadget as quickly, or even before, the neighbors did. Ours was a competitive society intent on image and keeping up with the Joneses…or better yet, making the Joneses keep up with YOU.
For any family that had one of the new boxes that could transmit black and white images from New York to a living room in Grants Pass, Oregon, the best way to make the Joneses keep up with you was to put the electronic gadget directly across from the picture window in the perfect little home. That way everyone on the block could witness, and envy, your success. For we children who found ourselves looking through that picture window, there was really little fear that the inhabitants would close the drapes and end our odyssey.
In retrospect I think that perhaps more than any device beyond the automobile, a television set was the ultimate symbol of success in the 1950's materialistic lifestyle of the World War II generation. It was this very lifestyle against which we young, the baby boomers, would rebel when we came of age during the 1960s.
In 1956 such political commentary was still beyond our young minds. That would come later. For the moment, it was enough to watch the grainy black and white images in fascination, as if we had been caught up in some kind of fairy tale.
In no small measure our world WAS a fairy tale. Imaginary heroes came to life on the big screen in living color, automobiles with removable tops were the rage, and mortals would soon defy gravity to fly into outer space. Decades later those years would be remembered as "The Happy Days" and our parents would be defined as "The Greatest Generation". Still too dependent upon our parents to defy their authority, and still too innocent to rebel against their materialism, we did not realize on the night of Sunday, September 9, 1956, that we were about to witness the opening volley in a social revolution that would change our world. Our only concern then was that tonight, an icon of the older generation was grudgingly opening the doors of his television program to a member of the younger generation.
Our fulfillment was almost anti-climatic to the anticipation--here for a moment, then gone. As our group of neighborhood kids got up from the lawn to return home, we all knew we would be greeted by parents none too happy with us for coming home after dark. Of course, that indiscretion was not unique to our generation. Since the beginning of time children have stretched the limits of parental boundaries.
I felt like I had stretched it far beyond the mere fact of staying out after dark. If my mother knew where I’d been, and that my evening transgression included rock and roll, she would probably ground me for a week. That was okay with me. I'd gotten what I came for.
I had seen Elvis!
Actually, I had seen Elvis from the waist up. Ed Sullivan, in an effort not to upset the older generation, refused to let the cameras pan backward far enough to display the vulgar antics of "Elvis the Pelvis". Back home, as I prepared for bed, I had to wonder what the big fuss was all about. As a first grader I didn’t know a lot about Elvis Presley and was just beginning to develop an interest in the music of my generation. Thus it was not a desire to hear him sing that had led me to a neighbor’s lawn that Sunday evening. I had gone in curiosity more than as an adoring fan. My young mind had to try and discern what it was about this boy from the South that made my parents so angry and motivated them to forbid me to listen to his music. I suspect the same was true of most of the other kids who had joined me in our forbidden adventure on a neighbor’s lawn.
At any other time in history our actions would have been seen as a typical, youthful indiscretion, and as a testing of the parental authority that denied us the forbidden fruit of our Garden of Eden. Elvis’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, while one of the most memorable events of the Happy Days, could not be justifiably recognized as a defining moment in history. It was rather, the opening volley in a war brewing between the World War II generation and its offspring from the baby boom that followed. Our test of parental authority that night was about to become more than a youthful indiscretion. The seeds of revolution were brewing between the two generations.
Within a few years, to the chagrin of our parents, Rock and Roll would become our marching song. The Greatest Generation with its post-war successes would become The Establishment--an untrustworthy and materialistic older generation. Our battle cry would be, "Don’t trust anyone over 30"; and in a groundswell of rebellion against the old ways of an austere society, large numbers of young Americans would "Turn on—tune in—drop out!"
Living in the shadow of uncles who saved the planet in the World War, grandparents whose fortitude had enabled them to endure the Great Depression, and successful parents who had built for us a world of ease and comfort, ours became a generation in search of its own definition. The Establishment would watch our search for identity and purpose and call us "The Lost Generation".
Ironically, we would find our identity through the one thing that divided our generation most, the war in Vietnam.
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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