“The sixties are back, and better than ever!” Or so says a radio spot promoting Hairspray, the musical my wife and I saw last night at a local theater. I’m not one of those men who dread going to these shows; I like the singing and dancing and the music of a live orchestra. It’s usually the storyline I find hard to take, and this one was no exception. Set in 1962 Baltimore, Hairspray is about a girl trying to land a spot on a television dance show and, simultaneously, get that show to integrate its cast. The plot relies mostly on jokes about overweight people, a large man dressed as a large woman, and the shocked reaction of a few white people to the sight of their kids breathing the same air as some black teenagers. There were references to Eddie Fisher, Mamie Eisenhower, and the Gabor sisters. Watching this show was a little like reading a comic book from the 1930s. I got the general idea, but I never felt myself becoming immersed in the story. I was a spectator.
Still, it got me thinking. I was seven years old in 1962. There were some unpleasant things going on in my family, but I was blissfully unaware of them. I also had some vague sense that the world might blow up at any moment, but other than the occasional dive under the desk at school, nuclear holocaust was no more than an abstract idea. I was preoccupied with more pressing matters. How were the Yankees doing? How many home runs was Mickey going to hit, and would Willie hit more? Did Roger have any chance of duplicating his incredible performance from the previous season? What about that new team in town, the Mets? And were we having pizza for dinner on Friday, or was this fish week?
All I wanted for Christmas in 1962 was an Etch-A-Sketch. It was a brand new toy that you could use to draw pictures by turning two knobs back and forth. Most magical was the fact that you could then erase the pictures just by holding the thing upside down and shaking it. I didn’t get one, but my cousin did. When I expressed some mild disappointment, my uncle took me aside and advised me that I wasn’t yet old enough for an Etch-A-Sketch. I was a little afraid of my uncle, but I silently wondered how old you had to be.
The following year, reality came knocking, uninvited. One spring day, I happened to be walking by the convent at lunch time. It was warm, and the side door was open. As I passed, I caught a glimpse of something that terrified me. Just inside the door, a group of nuns was sitting around a table, and they were eating. Let me repeat that: the nuns were eating. Just like real people. Maybe they were real people. I wasn’t sure. I had always thought they were some kind of semi-supernatural being, not in the same category as angels or saints, but not like us either. This eating thing was knowledge I was surely not supposed to have. I felt like Adam and Eve, only I was wearing a school uniform.
In June, Pope John XXIII died from stomach cancer, an illness he’d been fighting since the previous September. This was major. Every Catholic in the world had been praying for him, and he still died. It occurred to me that if prayers didn’t help the pope, they probably wouldn’t help anybody. Especially me.
That same month, Governor George Wallace tried to prevent two black students from registering at the University of Alabama. President Kennedy had to call in the National Guard to physically remove the governor, if necessary. In August, Martin Luther King delivered his I Have A Dream speech to 200,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. These events opened my eyes, at least a bit, to a situation I had failed to see before. Our neighborhood was a mixture of every ethnicity and complexion. So was our school. We were all people and we all had names and feelings, and we liked or didn’t like each other based on how we behaved. I had assumed the world worked that way. More accurately, I hadn’t really thought about it at all. But I was beginning to understand that things were not as they had seemed. The light coming on in my head was casting some ugly shadows.
In October, the Yankees lost to the Dodgers in the World Series. It took me a month to get over this. The Yankees couldn’t lose, and certainly not to the Dodgers. But they did lose; worst of all, they were swept. The Yankees scored a total of four runs in four games. Sandy Koufax, the Dodger pitcher, had struck out fifteen batters in the first game with 69,000 fans watching at the Stadium, just a few miles from our house. During the Series, Mickey and Roger combined for two hits in twenty at-bats. It was a nightmare. What could be worse?
Seven weeks later, President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. Once again everyone prayed, and once again it did no good. That weekend The New York Daily News published a drawing of Kennedy’s face. The picture had blank areas that you were supposed to color in with a pencil. The finished illustration was a black and white portrait, complete with a thick black border. I cut out the picture and taped it to our window, facing the street. I liked to draw, and was proud of that tribute to the fallen president, as sad as it was.
The next month, I got an Etch-A-Sketch for Christmas. It wasn’t easy to use and most of the artwork I produced was unrecognizable, even to me. But you really could erase everything just by shaking it. You could make all of the mistakes go away, and start over. Sometimes I wish life were like that. I wish we could erase those parts where we really messed up, as though they never happened. And I wish we could capture the good stuff, the happy memories, keeping them frozen like an over-sprayed hairdo. I wish it were possible to return to that time of blissful ignorance, at least for an occasional visit. If only we could. The sixties would be back, and better than ever.