People Everywhere

Posted on July 5, 2013

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1968I peer out the window on a sunny July afternoon, scanning right and left, and covering the full semicircle within view. All is quiet, and still. The scene is unsettling, like a dream that’s disturbing for a reason you can’t quite identify. Two bicycles lie on their sides in the driveway next door. A basketball has rolled under a parked car and appears to be wedged under the back bumper. There’s a single black crow glued to the roof of the house across the street.

Nothing moves.

If an alien spaceship were to hover over the block, activate its vertical vacuum system, suck all the people into a sealed compartment, and disappear without a sound, this is exactly what the result would look like.

Where is everybody? When did summer become a time of mass evacuation?

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I’m twelve. It’s the last day of school. A little while ago, I leaped off the bus and said goodbye to the seventh grade. Our neighborhood is alive, swarming with dogs and kids, all trying to out-bark each other. There are no electronic devices, and the first text message is decades away. When you want to get someone’s attention, you cup your hands around your mouth and you scream. If they don’t hear you, then you take in a big gulp of air and scream louder. Or you throw something at them.

I stand off to the side and close my eyes. In my mind, I can imagine the entire vacation sprawled out in front of me, stretching away almost endlessly into the future. This is the best part of the best part, and I want to squeeze the moment, holding onto it for as long as I can.

It’s 1968. We’re only six months in and it’s already been a terrible year. Actually, every year is terrible, but something happens to your brain when you turn twelve. You begin to look outward, and see things you hadn’t noticed before. You start to examine the differences between what you once believed about life and what seems to be the case in the real world.

The civil rights movement is riddled with violence as peaceful protests turn into battlegrounds, and the murder of its leader sparks national riots. The democratic process in the United States is marred by assassination and police brutality. American casualties in a far-off country reach a peak of more than sixteen thousand, while civilians there are massacred because sometimes “it becomes necessary to destroy the town to save it.” At the Nevada Test Site, no fewer than fifty-six nuclear weapons are detonated, with the force of each bomb measured in thousands or millions of tons of TNT.

Things are so bad that even the president, up for re-election, decides to head for the hills.

Meanwhile, on the suburban streets of New York, children employ less menacing strategies for dealing with conflict. Small factions of boys, divided by some pointless disagreement, launch missiles of stupidity back and forth across a demilitarized zone of empty pavement.

The fighting stops abruptly when someone announces, “Your mother wears army boots.” This silences everyone, not because it’s especially shocking or clever, but because nobody really understands what it means, and a careless reply could expose that embarrassing truth. During my childhood, I expend countless volts of mental energy trying to visualize the mother of one friend or another trudging up the stairs in oversize and clunky military footwear. The image eventually evaporates into a calming mist of nothingness, which, I now suppose, is just what it was.

When somebody does manage to say something genuinely cutting, we struggle in vain to respond in kind.

“Yeah, so’s your old man” is often the best we can do. If an action or comment is considered too far out of bounds, we offer up the vacant threat – “I’m telling” – which is just vague enough to be intimidating.

Grownups“You’re in trouble!” is equally effective, but only if the word trouble is stressed, with a sufficient gap between the syllables, and is delivered in a sing-song tone, as though it could just as well have been a dire warning chanted in Latin.

One day, an older girl sends a hush through the crowd. She’s done something ill-advised, and has been called on it. But rather than shrink away, she stands tall and defends herself by declaring, “It’s a free country!” We all shut up. We’ve never heard this before, and have no counter-argument. Four little words that seem to carry so much weight, and are uttered with such authority, that we’re sure they must have come from an advanced history class, or one of those thick volumes with no pictures I sometimes encounter at the library while I’m searching for books of jokes and riddles. It soon enters our language, and we use it to justify almost anything. In fact, we have a supply of stock answers to help us prepare for most situations.

When we’re caught by surprise, we say we weren’t ready, and ask for a do-over. When something gets in the way, we yell “Interference!” When we want to claim our preference, we do so with our voices: “I called the front seat.”

Somehow, it all works. No one is killed, or beaten with clubs, or dragged off to jail, or even expelled from the group. We keep the peace through verbal sparring sessions, and if there are emotional wounds, they heal quickly and are gone.

* * * * *

As I stare out the window on another sunny July afternoon, I wonder if emotions ever get wounded on this street. Do the kids who live in these quiet homes — and who have now been assigned to camps and soccer tournaments and other organized activities – ever learn to explore the boundaries and solve their own problems? Or will they simply re-assemble in early September, seated at their desks and secretly sending each other text messages, while their teachers attempt to explain war, discrimination, and the uncontrolled rage of mobs? And will they grow up, still not knowing how to be together?

Debate

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Here’s one of the biggest songs from 1968.

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