Snow

Snow.  That’s what we called it, snow.  No polar vortex, no bomb cyclone, no Winter Storm Fred or anything like that.  Snow.  If it got so thick you couldn’t see past your outstretched hand, it was a blizzard; that was about the extent of our parsing of winter weather.

But wait, you say, people are suffering losses, some are even dying.  That’s true, and it’s just as lamentable now as it was before the storm of jargon came spewing out of weather centers.  I daresay the casualties were worse back then, in the mid 20th century, before forced air gas heating, heat pumps, whole house generators and hyper-insulated houses.  There were only two realistic choices: coal or oil, and both systems worked on the principle of convection.  Worse, if a winter turned out to be especially long or cold, you could run out of either, and be hard put to get more of it in a reasonable time.  People froze.  It was winter.

But for every downside there’s an upside.  The snow was a cash cow for us kids.  We’d go trundling up and down the street shoveling sidewalks for a buck a pop.  We would have charged more for driveways, but there were no such things in my neighborhood, just alleys covered with soot from the ubiquitous trash fires.  My eyes still glaze over in nostalgia whenever I smell garbage burning.

On a good snow day, you could end up with ten or fifteen bucks in your pocket by noon, a small fortune for a ten or twelve year old kid in the 1950s, and still have time to spend the rest of the day sledding down a steep hill into traffic.  I never made that much; I felt rich as soon as I hit five bucks, and went about finding ways to spend it.  But that was me.  I also collected coins in specially made books with slots for each year back to the Upper Paleolithic, but I never filled one.  I spent that, too, as soon as enough money to buy something accumulated.

We’d also have fun “skitching” rides on the perennially unplowed streets.  That involved sneaking low behind a car at an intersection, grabbing the bumper, and getting pulled along, sliding on the packed snow.  Even getting caught was fun.  We’d pelt the furious driver with snowballs and run away.

There was one time, though, that a cop caught us putting snowballs into a mailbox.  He informed us solemnly that he was letting us go, but that tampering with the mail was a federal crime, and he couldn’t vouch for what the FBI might want to do.

I had nightmares about J. Edgar Hoover for a week after that.

Differently abled

In the good old days, the little creek that ran through the city park near the house I grew up in ran a different color every day, depending on which upstream factory was dumping in it.  Nothing living was ever seen in it.  Its topography was littered with old tires and paint cans; it smelt vaguely of sewage.  We children played in it, none the wiser.  That parents warned us that it was “polio water” only made it all the more attractive.

Polio was an everyday feature of our lives in those days before the Salk vaccine.  Every neighborhood had its assortment of twisted limbs and funerals featuring disturbingly small coffins.  By the time I was seven, I knew what a corpse looked like.  The old man down the street had collapsed in the alley and died of something that would be routinely treated today; a boy in my first grade class perished of what I heard in my muddledness as “romantic fever.”   We were paraded in single file past where he lay in his open coffin, white and cold as the snow that was drifting outside.  It was what it was, and like children everywhere, we just thought that was what life was like.

Polio was a particularly haunting beast, because when it didn’t kill, it left its victims in varying degrees of disability.  The worst was the iron lung, a contraption that looked like a water heater laid on its side, the patient all but swallowed up in it, only the head protruding.  A mirror was thoughtfully placed to allow eye contact.  When it was operating, it sounded like Darth Vader; I’m certain that’s where Lucas got the inspiration.

Short of the horrors of that was every degree of disability.  As a teenager, my friend Jerry was one of the survivors who had managed a limited mobility.  His legs twisted like corkscrews, he rammed his crutches into the sidewalk with every step, muscles taut as wires on the verge of snapping.  All the same, he got around, as one does, even to the point of dancing in a strangely balletic series of jerks and realignments.

The dances took place on Friday or Saturday nights in a great neoclassical hulk of a building in the center of the park.  Whatever its original purpose, in my day it served as a community center, a place for youngsters from both sides of the park, sworn enemies, to come together and play basketball, pool, or ping pong.  Or, as often as not, for the boys to fight it out.  That boys would fight each other was considered so obvious as to not merit discussion; efforts at mediation were few and feeble, and usually involved trying to get the fighters to put on gloves.  The fights actually took place outside the building, in consideration of the generosity of the venue, and the disinclination to follow any rules, Queensberry or otherwise.

The dances were open, and generally peaceful.  On one particular night, Jerry was flailing away, dancing with one of the regular girls, who knew and liked him, when a boy from across the park began to taunt him, mocking his awkward moves.

Jerry swiveled around, raised a crutch, and caught the boy on the side of the head with a resounding “Thwack!”  The boy fell, the music kept playing, and Jerry and everyone else resumed dancing.

That boy got up, left the building reeling, and never was seen there again.  No one ever made fun of Jerry’s dancing after that.

Draft dodging revisited

Let’s get one thing straight at the outset: Saving your own ass is a perfectly honorable reason to avoid military service, if you don’t see a compelling reason to go to war in the first place.

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And another thing:  those were crazy times, the 60s.

The beats, those semi-feral gnosticati whom we came to later venerate, were creatures of the WW II aftermath, in exactly the same way as the Lost Generation was of WW I.  An incomprehensibly brutal war had beaten the bejeezus out of the population at large, and those few sensitive and creative souls who could banded together in resistance to the Great Blanding that followed.  They were artists, primarily, painters, poets, musicians, above all uncynical and undisillusioned, still willing to bite on the bare hook, still enthralled by beauty and the ideal.  Do I surprise you?  That cynical, hip beatnik pose that’s so familiar was a disguise at most, at worst a caricature painted by a society that wanted nothing remotely experimental to happen for the foreseeable future.  The war and the depression it followed had been adventure enough, thanks.

But, for better or worse, the beats became famous, especially for naturally rebellious young folk, always feeling stifled, but particularly in that post-war treacle of the 1950s.  For them, Kerouac, Ginsburg, Ferlinghetti, and the rest represented not only freedom from accountability, but an expression of creativity completely unfettered by the constraints of the responsible, normal, world.  Never mind that Kerouac actually lived with (not to say on) his mother in Lowell between cross-country adventures, or that Ferlinghetti had served honorably in the Navy during the war.  Come to that, never mind that most of the people who so earnestly emulated them were safely enrolled in college.  It was a ramblin’ kinda thing by the early 1960s, a confusion of Woody Guthrie and William Burroughs, sort of a gay, jazzed up Alan Lomax thing, a place where Coltrane and Leadbelly were equally likely to be heard on the hi-fi in any given off-campus apartment.  And, thanks largely to sheer romance, it was all vaguely leftist.  Posters of Rosa Luxembourg, or someone equally suitably obscure, were everywhere.  People carried anarchist paperbacks in their hip pockets.  It never occurred to most to read the damn things.  Best of all, it was cozily small, an invitation-only subterranean elite.

I say this stuff as a member of that wannabe tribe, or, more accurately, as a wannabe member of it; my own background was far too odd for easy acceptance in what amounted to a splinter group of the middle class.  I was born a refugee, a natural intellectual, an ex-Catholic who grew up in a not-so-pretty working class neighborhood, in which the inhabitants would never have dreamed of calling themselves working class, or any other class for that matter.  In my neighborhood, graduation from reform school was as typical as graduation from high school, and of roughly equal status.  Almost nobody outside my immediate family went on to college.  Such was my enculturation; I didn’t have the savoir faire for acceptance as a middle class rebel.  Worse yet, as an exile from Latvia, I had no great affection for Marxist pipe dreams.  But enough disclosure.

In the midst of this happily angst-ridden fairyland, the war in Vietnam came gnawing like a small but determined troupe of mice in the pantry.  Begun by Eisenhower as a way to shore up Indochina after the expulsion of the French, it might have remained an obscure haven for covert operations, but for a series of circumstances, too complex to go into here, that led Lyndon Johnson to try to win it and get out quickly.  That meant escalation, and that meant that the draft, which during much of the late 1950s and early 1960s had been little more than a minor nuisance, became a jarring reality to the pleasant little community of rebellious savants, many of whom were in and out of college as if it were a game of musical chairs.  This was a real problem when it came to student draft deferments.  In those early days, if you lost your 2S status, you were next.  What to do?

Why, protest, of course.  At first, it was uncomfortably small groups carrying signs, in emulation of the Ban-the-Bomb rallies a decade earlier.  Intellectuals, who had studied the background to the war and had an understanding of the stakes, and of its place in leftist dogma.  Later, as more and more young men in college realized they could very well end up in the Army if nothing changed, the ranks were far less well informed, but considerably more sanguine.  I don’t impugn the integrity of each and every war protester of the era; there were certainly many who were sincere in their beliefs.  But many more simply wanted to avoid a dangerous detour in their well ordered lives, and still others saw a way to exploit a growing movement for their own ends.  Suffice it to say that the implications of the “Girls-say-yes-to-Boys-who-say-no” campaigns of the late 1960s were not lost on the many young men of the day.

Of course, people could have simply admitted that they saw no good reason for the war, and thus wanted to save their own asses.  After all, saving their asses was what the young men who did go to war were doing every day; nothing dishonorable about it.  Even those few who didn’t end up in Vietnam just by default of the system, and who really went on an idealistic mission to stop communism, in the end only fought to save their own asses, and those of their comrades.  Honesty, as usual, though the best policy, was the least popular.

As a result of all this duplicity, it became a Matter of Principle, which is to say that people chose up sides and bitterly denounced those who refused to join them.  It is a testament to this fundamental lack of good faith that to this day there remains a considerable amount of rancor in the remnants of the debate.

And me?  I got drafted, and ended up joining the Air Force, serving in Okinawa and Germany, ironically skirting Vietnam altogether.  I didn’t join because I believed in the war, or because I was afraid of the criminal consequences of dodging the draft.  I joined so as not to break my father’s heart.

That’s about all the honor I had in me; it still is.

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Photo credit: http://www.alfred.edu/pressreleases/viewrelease.cfm?ID=7252