Coming of Age with America 1964 - 2024
words & music by Harry Becker © 2024
words & music by Harry Becker © 2024
1964 was a pivotal year in American history. Still in shock and grieving over the assassination of John F. Kennedy six weeks earlier, the country would begin to experience a convergence of events that would fundamentally change it, forcing it to acknowledge its failure to be the just and free nation it claims to be, and address its abusive behavior toward minorities, women, and the environment. Starting with the release of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ in January and The Beatle’s debut on The Ed Sullivan Show a few weeks later, events during the year would inspire a period of transformation that would come to define the sixties. It was a time for rebellion. While Dylan was warning parents their sons and their daughters were beyond their command, teenage boys were defying them, refusing to get a haircut.
As Mod fashions from England were introducing the mini skirt to America, three Beach Party movies starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello were popularizing the Bikini. The sexual revolution had begun. The Civil Rights Movement that began a decade earlier was demanding to be heard, along with a growing chorus of demonstrators objecting to a war that would soon tear the country apart. Cracks began to appear in politics, race, and gender, pitting liberals against conservatives, whites against blacks, women against men, and young against old. I was eighteen in 1964. America was one hundred and eighty-eight. Describing adolescence as a period marked by restlessness, erratic behavior, and a struggle to establish an identity in control of itself, you could say we were both coming of age.
chapter 1 - Our Stories
The wide oak door swung open as big Mike Higgins walked in. “Allo, allo”, he belted with an Irish brogue and a powerful voice matching his enormous chest and massive forearms, the result of years spent digging graves at the Old Calvary Cemetery located just beyond the Kosciusko Bridge in nearby Sunnyside Queens, New York. By the time he took his seat at the bar, a shot of Jameson’s whiskey and a glass of beer were waiting for him. Like everyone else in the tavern, he was a regular. On weekdays, workers from nearby factories would stop by, but on the weekend, it was only men from the neighborhood – no women. Wives occasionally came in to see their husbands but rarely stayed more than a few minutes. Mister Higgins, as I always addressed him, stopped in every day. I grew up with his son Tommy, who like me, was one of the many baby boomers born right after World War II. In the 50’s there were enough kids living on the block to form sizable teams every Saturday for a game of punchball, stoopball, or stickball. As great as those days were, however, this Saturday was better. It was one of my first as a certified adult of legal drinking age.
It was a sunny afternoon on September 12th,1964. I recently turned eighteen and was one week into my freshman year at Pratt Institute studying Industrial Design. My brother Willie and I were having a few beers in Julie’s Tavern on the corner of Morgan and Driggs in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Julie, short for Julius, inherited the tavern from his father who immigrated from Poland earlier in the century. It had a long Mahogany bar stretching twenty feet across a black and white checkered floor before turning, ending at a wall yellowed from decades of cigarette smoke. Willie was in his usual spot with his back to the wall, near a large colonial window with a view of our parent’s grocery store on the opposite corner, and two stoops, one leading to their apartment where I lived and the other to where Willie lived with his wife and two-month-old son. Parked in front was a 60 Ford I bought a month earlier, right after receiving my driver’s license. Though the state considered me to be an adult, Willie, who was eight years older, couldn’t resist reminding me I was still his kid brother. He also couldn’t resist letting me know how unimpressed he was by my pursuit of higher education.
“Is that what they teach ya in college - how to tawk bedda?” he said. I told him I was just following advice a teacher gave me recommending I get rid of my Brooklyn accent, suggesting I talk slower and focus on my pronunciation. “What’s wrong with the way ya tawk?” he replied. “Now that ya in college, ya think ya smarta then everyone else?” He wasn’t really looking for an answer, so I didn’t give him one. Besides, if I was to be honest, I would have had to say yeah. Why wouldn’t I? I always had the highest grades in school, receiving academic awards and memberships in city and national Honor Societies. I recently graduated from the most prestigious technical high school in the city and was now studying at one of the finest design institutes in the country. “College boy”, he snickered. Willie believed too much education reduced a man’s capacity for common sense. His movie idol, John Wayne, or “The Duke” as he was known to his fans, played tough independent cowboys who lived by a simple code of behavior and had little use for academia. In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, his character says “I know those law books mean a lot to you, but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems.”
Willie took a swig of beer, then lit a cigarette. I did the same. We both smoked Marlboro, a brand made popular due to an effective advertising campaign featuring an American cowboy called the Marlboro Man. Earlier in the year the surgeon general issued a report saying smoking presented a risk for lung cancer. Shortly after that “The Duke”, who was known to smoke between five and seven packs a day, announced he had the disease. Before the year would end one of his lungs would be removed. It would take two years before the tobacco companies would be required to place warning labels on their packaging. The campaign would last thirty-five years. Eventually five men that would play the Marlboro Man would die of smoking-related diseases. I would continue to smoke for 20 years, Willie for 25.
Through the window I could see Doc standing on the opposite corner with his back against the utility pole facing the entrance to the grocery store. Mentally disabled and unemployed, he would stand there every afternoon, politely greeting everyone passing by. “How old is Doc?” I asked Willie. “Don’t know, maybe forty?” He shrugged. When Willie joined the Navy in ‘56, Doc asked him if he could get him a Navy peacoat. Willie did, and Doc wore it every winter since, standing watch on the corner like it was the bow of a ship, peering intensely down the four directions of the intersection as if through binoculars. If he saw anything unusual, he’d tell you about it the next time you walked by. My mother would sometimes bring him a hot cup of coffee on a cold day and thank him for keeping an eye on the neighborhood. He wasn’t that talkative, but he’d always smile and say “yea” to whatever you said. He’d get very serious however if he perceived something was wrong. I’m ashamed to say, when I was too young to know better, I and some of the other kids once teased him to the point where he chased us down the block. I felt bad afterwards and never treated him disrespectfully again.
“The cat’s looking a little tired” I said pointing to a faded tattoo on Willie’s forearm of a black panther in mortal combat with a boa constrictor. “Nah” He said, “he’s still hangin’ in there.” It was one of six he had covering both arms. He got them while serving in the Navy. His prized possession was an illuminated photo of The USS The Sullivans, a destroyer named in honor of five brothers who went down with their ship in World War II. His favorite show was Victory at Sea which showed films of sea battles during the war. The ship took part in some of those battles, and I suspect Willie wished he could have been on board at the time. He no doubt would have served his country heroically. He was never wanting for patriotism or courage. Good sense, however, was another thing.
Once while on Christmas leave, he hooked up with an old friend our mother warned him to avoid. “Don’t worry ‘bout it” were the last words she heard him say before receiving a call from the police station the following morning. Willie was too drunk to know what was happening when his friend Crawford robbed a cab driver, but he was arrested all the same. His case was eventually dismissed but not before he was dishonorably discharged from the Navy. It was a crushing disappointment for Willie who loved the Navy having quit high school to enlist, longing to be part of a family that gave him pride and respect. Growing up he always took second place to our father’s first-born John, otherwise known as Hansey. Hans was two years older than Willie and received most of pop’s limited capacity for expressing affection.
Our mother did her best to attend to them equally but of course when I came along most of her attention was diverted to me. I grew up doing my best to make her proud and somehow managed to stay out of trouble on the street. I sometimes feel I must have had a guardian angel looking out for me. If such things do exist, I think it was cruel of heaven for not providing one for Willie that fateful Christmas night.
chapter 2 - Believing the Story
Looking through the window I watched an old man cross the street. He was tall and thin with a gray stubble on his face. His torso was bent forward, and he was walking fast as if to keep himself from falling over. Willie noticed him too. “Here comes Stosh, Wanna play a number?” he asked as this scruffy man walked in, pulling a pen and a piece of paper out of his shirt pocket. Like other retirees in working-class neighborhoods, Stosh, short for Stanislaus, supplemented his social security income working as a runner for the numbers game, an illegal lottery run by the mob. The Brooklyn racket was run by Joe Bonanno, one of five crime families in New York City. Though the police generally turned a blind eye to the racket, some runners were known to write their list of bets on a paper wrapper from a slice of Wrigley’s chewing gum. It was foil lined and when rolled up tightly could be stored in the mouth, safely hidden from any cop who might want to search them. Stosh walked the length of the bar collecting dollars, and writing down names, and numbers. I gave him a dollar and played double-O seven. Willie played 537, the number of his ship The USS The Sullivans. The winning number would be published in the Daily News the following day. It would be the last three digits of "the handle", that is, the amount racetrack bettors placed at the Aqueduct Racetrack the day before. Though the odds of winning were a thousand to one, the prize was only five hundred dollars. It may not have been a smart bet, but it gave you something to hope for and it was fun checking the newspaper in the morning. That was the only gambling I’ve ever known Willie to do. As for myself, I had already discovered I had an attraction to the vice.
In 1961 the movie The Hustler came out. The following year I turned sixteen and started hanging out in Mike’s Poolroom. Within a year I was playing for money. I made friends with a gambler named Johnny D, who would sometimes back me in a game of nine ball. The first few times I won, but once when I lost Johnny was determined to get his money back. He persuaded me to back him in a poker game with a guy he assured me he could beat. The two of us went to a small room at the local YMCA where the guy was waiting with a deck of cards. After five hands the fifty bucks I staked Johnny was gone. He didn’t come around much after that, and I eventually realized it was a set-up. Fifty years later a similarly naïve America would back a conman who would exploit the country’s trust for his own enrichment.
Julie brought another round then tapped his knuckles on the bar signifying the drinks were on the house. We were drinking Rheingold the official beer of the NY Mets made right here in Brooklyn. Every spring there’d be displays in bars and on grocery store counters offering ballots to elect one of six white women vying for the title of Miss Rheingold. For twenty-four years it was the country’s most popular contest, second only to the presidential elections. This year would be its last. The company always supported the black community, having sponsored the Nat King Cole Show, the first TV show to be hosted by a black entertainer, but fearing a backlash if it included black women in the competition, it simply chose to end it.
The first practical TV sets were introduced at The New York World’s Fair in 1939. The first television commercial aired in 1941 advertising Bulova Watches during a baseball game. From 1946 to 1949 the number of homes that had a TV grew from 44 thousand to 4 million. By 1953, one out of two American homes had one. By 1960 television had become the most effective tool for political campaigning, made evident by the televised debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The majority of those who watched the debates felt Kennedy won while most radio listeners believed Nixon was the victor. Less than two decades later a more effective vehicle for messaging would be created. Just seven miles away the first desktop computer, the Olivetti Programma 101 was on display at the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens. The device would eventually make possible the internet and a social platform capable of promoting a pseudo-reality based on lies and misinformation that would erode trust in the government and the news industry, giving rise to so-called alternative facts and conspiracy theories. By that time the country would have already had some experience with conspiracy theories. One of the most popular would be born in two weeks when the Warren Commission would issue a report concluding Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of President Kennedy. Within ten years 80% of Americans would believe the truth was being concealed.
Willie picked up a nearby newspaper and started reading. “Whadaya know, The Democrats and the Republicans have agreed not to do any negative advertising”. One week earlier a television campaign advertisement showed a little girl counting while picking petals from a daisy, followed by a launch countdown ending with a mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion. The presidential election between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater was less than two months away. The ad raised the fear of nuclear destruction if Goldwater was elected. Though it only ran once, the Daisy Ad as it would come to be known, would be credited for Johnson’s victory. It would not be the last negative ad used in a political campaign.
“Did ja watch the fight last night?” Willie asked. He was referring to the Fight of The Week, a television show broadcasting live boxing matches every Friday night. It was the final broadcast, ending an eighteen-year-old tradition. It had been losing popularity ever since Benny “the kid” Perret died in a fight televised two years earlier. From now on the only live televised bouts in the ring would be professional wrestling. Muhammed Ali, known as Cassius Clay at the time, learned the art of self-promotion from Gorgeous George, a wrestler who created a persona audiences loved to hate. He once told Clay "A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth, so keep on bragging and always be outrageous". There would come a day when a rich and powerful television personality, wanting to promote his brand, would stage a fight in the wrestling ring between himself and the head of the wrestling federation. He would play both “the hero” raging against a corrupt establishment, as well as “the heel” willing to win at all costs having, as he would say, “the killer instinct”. He would go on to become the 45th President of the United States, convincing voters the country was being destroyed by politicians. He would claim that he alone could drain the swamp and then proceed to rule over a corrupt administration like a mob boss. Upon winning the heavyweight title Muhammed Ali ceased playing the loudmouth becoming instead a model of integrity and maturity. Unfortunately, Donald Trump would never stop being a pompous juvenile pretending to be a superhero.
chapter 3 - Villains and Victims
Julie brought Willie and I a new round, then walked to the other end of the bar to turn off the TV. It just finished broadcasting a baseball game between the New York Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Mets lost, securing their place in the cellar of the National League for the year. This was only their third season, and the first at the newly built Shea Stadium in the neighboring borough of Queens. The new team filled the void left by the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants when the teams moved to California in ’57. Though Manhattan still had the Yankees, the abandoned working-class fans in the outer boroughs of Brooklyn and The Bronx could never embrace the corporate pin stripes as their own. Designed to win over the abandoned fans, the colors of the Met’s uniforms were blue representing the Dodgers and orange in memory the Giants. For most the plan worked. For some like me it didn’t. I lost interest in the sport and for many the name Walter O’Malley, the Dodgers owner, would forever be cursed. At the time there was a popular joke expressing the level of contempt Brooklyn fans had for the owner. "You’re in an elevator with Stalin, Hitler and O'Malley, and you have a gun with only two bullets. Who do you shoot?" "You shoot O'Malley, twice.” Turning away from the TV Willie shook his head in despair. “Lost again” he sighed. I said nothing.
Two weeks ago on September 1st, pitcher Masanori Murakami became the first Japanese man to play in the American major leagues. He pitched a scoreless eighth inning for the San Francisco Giants beating the New York Mets. Losing to our old nemeses the Giants was bad enough, but for my brother, losing to a Japanese pitcher was worse. Willie was 3 years old when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in ‘41. Having served in the Navy, he could never let go of his contempt for the country. In a few weeks Tokyo would host the Summer Olympics demonstrating its complete recovery from the war. With help from the U.S. Japan rebuilt itself and was now second only to the U.S. as the world’s largest economy. Japanese electronics were everywhere. The Sony transistor radio introduced in ‘55 sold seven million units by the mid-sixties satisfying the appetite of an ever-expanding market of adolescent boomers. Its portability made it possible to have a constant stream of music and talk available wherever you were: on a street corner, a park bench, or a beach blanket. Every teenager had a pocket radio providing a soundtrack to their lives with songs that expressed their intense emotions, and longing for love and attention. Fifty years later the smartphone would be just as popular with America’s young people and along with the personal computer, would gain complete control of their attention.
Willie’s lingering hatred for the “Japs”, as he called them, was not unlike the contempt many Americans had for Germans during and immediately after World War II. German Americans weren’t put into internment camps like Japanese Americans, but they were still treated with suspicion and disrespect. My parents suffered many insults during those years. The landlord of our building had immigrated from Poland many years earlier, and when Germany occupied Poland in ‘39, she became a very angry and bitter person. One morning in 1946, as my mother fetched my brand-new baby carriage stored in the lower hallway of the apartment house, she found a swastika symbol scratched deep across the side. As insulting as the “Nazi” slur was to German Americans during those years it was never as offensive as another racially charged N-word was to African Americans. I would sometimes hear that word on the street when referring to a community living in a nearby government housing facility built ten years earlier for low-income families. “The Projects”, as the building complex was called, was off limits and mingling with black kids discouraged. One day after school, I walked into the grocery store with a black schoolmate from my six-grade class. My Uncle John, my father’s partner in the business, pulled me to the side and quietly advised me not to become too friendly with him. I obeyed.
I picked up a quarter from my change on the bar and walked over to the jukebox. I selected three songs: The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel, Where Did Our Love Go by The Supremes, and Willie’s favorite “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime by Dean Martin which had recently bumped “A Hard Day’s Night” by The Beatles from the #1 slot on the Billboard charts. The Supremes were a product of Motown Records, established by Berry Gordy in 1959. Having previously worked on an automobile assembly line in Motor City Detroit he applied a similar manufacturing process to the production of records, carefully crafting songs and grooming black artists to appeal to a white audience. A major Motown hit, “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and The Vandellas, played all summer long as riots in inner cities broke out protesting racial discrimination and police brutality. Though it wasn’t the song’s intent it became an anthem to rebel, inspiring civil rights demonstrations prompting some white radio stations to remove it from their playlist. Banning a song about dancing, fearing it would incite a riot, recalls a time seventy-four years earlier when the U.S. government, fearing an uprising, prohibited the performance of the “Ghost Dance” by the segregated Lakota Sioux warriors. Silencing protests from the segregated black community however would not be as easy.
The summer began with the murder of three Civil Rights workers in Mississippi at the hands of law enforcement officials. The three young men had been part of a campaign to register African Americans to vote. The brutal crime was in response to the Senates passing of the Civil Rights Act two days before on July 2nd banning segregation. Two weeks later, a fifteen-year-old black boy was shot and killed by a white police officer in Harlem, giving rise to riots there and in the nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Rioting spread to other cities in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Illinois during what would come to be known as the Long, Hot Summer of ’64. The temperature had already begun to rise back in May when several hundred students marched through Times Square, New York, and other cities, objecting to the growing conflict in Vietnam. Sparked by the reinstating of the draft earlier in the year, the anti-war movement caught fire in August, when The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave President Johnson the authority to escalate the war. In 1967 Muhammad Ali, still the heavyweight boxing champion, would receive his draft notice and refuse induction into the Army forfeiting his title and the right to ever box again. He would say his enemy was not in Vietnam but here at home. In 1971 a comic strip character named Pogo would famously say “We have met the enemy and he is us”.
chapter 4 - Questioning the Story
The faded outline of a baseball strike zone on the concrete wall of the nearby elevated Brooklyn-Queens Expressway was still visible. Hansey painted it in ‘53 when he was fifteen. He, Willie, and some friends had a club called The Jokers and the rectangle was decorated to resemble the Joker in a deck of Tally Ho playing cards. In the late 40’s outlaw motorcycle gangs emerged providing a brotherhood for GIs struggling to readjust to society after returning from the war. Inspired by “The Wild One”, a movie about a rebellious motorcycle gang starring Marlon Brando, my brothers began wearing black leather motorcycle jackets, engineer boots, blue jeans and a Garrison belt, the nationally accepted attire for non-conformists. When asked “what are you rebelling against? Brando’s character replies “whaddya got? By 1965 the answer to that question would be clear when the first protest song, The Eve of Destruction, would be released condemning racism, the Vietnam War, and the threat of nuclear destruction. In the early fifties the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union raised the threat of a nuclear attack prompting schools to conduct duck and cover drills. It only took me three seconds to flip up my seat, crouch under my desk facing away from the window, put my head to my knees and my hands on the back of my head. I was very confident I wouldn’t get any glass in my eye.
1964 began with the release of the movie “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb”. The year would end with “Goldfinger”, the third movie in the James Bond franchise featuring a villain resembling Nikita Khrushchev, the Premier of the Soviet Union. Two years ago, he deployed ballistic missiles in Cuba in response to American missiles in Italy and Turkey. Tension between the two nations had been escalating and the Cuban Missile Crisis of ‘62 brought the country to the brink of nuclear war. Earlier this year the movie “Seven Days in May” was released warning us the enemy could also come from within, depicting an attempted military coup. In 2019 the U.S military would be alerted to the possibility that their commander in chief, defeated in his bid to be reelected President and feared to be unstable, might order an unwarranted nuclear strike in a desperate attempt to remain in power.
“Good lookin’ car” Willie said nodding his head toward my Ford parked outside. It was silver-gray, like James Bond’s Aston Martin, with a black convertible top, whitewall tires, fender skirts, and a spare tire mounted on an extended rear bumper. It had flat horizontal fins like the wings on a plane. The model was a Galaxy Starliner. Like the rockets that took the Mercury Astronauts into space, this starship would be my transport to and from a place of higher learning where I would gain a new perspective. Fueled by psychedelic music and mind-altering drugs, my voyage would free me from the gravity of conventional thinking. As a child I was told never to step off the curb without adult supervision. Every city boy knows however, if a grown-up isn’t available to retrieve a ball that bounced across the street, you had to get it yourself. I learned early on breaking rules was sometimes necessary. In the coming years I would step off the curb many times on a journey that would take me to strange new worlds. By the time Neil Armstrong would step foot on the moon less than five years later, I too would have a very different perspective and feel just as far from home. Over the next four years my grade index would decline, moving me from the “Dean’s List” as a freshman to the “Warning List” as a senior. The war would escalate during that time and it would become increasingly clear that upon graduation, I would be drafted into the Army to fight for a cause I believed to be unjust. Whatever dreams I may have had of being a designer would be lost.
On June 7th, 1968, I would receive my degree. It would be the day after Robert Kennedy, the anti-war movements only hope, would be assassinated. A few days earlier I would receive a notice that I was to be inducted into the U.S.Army in early October. I would mail ten resumes to nearby school districts hoping to land a job teaching, the only profession that would grant a deferment. Two weeks before the school year would begin in September, I would be hired to teach drafting and design, at Wantagh Senior High School in Long Island, N.Y. Desperate to find a replacement the school district would overlook my lack of certification or training. I would teach for three years, during which time the national draft lottery would place my birthdate near the bottom of the list. No longer in need of a deferment and anxious to pursue a new direction, I would resign refusing an offer of tenure if I would stay. I would say goodbye to my girlfriend who would be expecting a marriage proposal instead. She, along with family and friends wouldn’t understand why I would walk away from such a secure future. It would be clear to everyone but me, I had lost my senses. What would be clear to me however, was my want for adventure, and my need to be creative and escape a profession I was forced into. I would set out to “find myself”, as we would say. I’d work in an old fishery in Cape Cod, drive a taxi in New York City, open a bike shop, make and repair guitars, and write and sing songs. I would be in my fifties before I would get married and settle down.
In 2019, Deepak Chopra, a prominent figure in the New Age Movement and proponent of alternative medicine, would say “We are the only creatures who tell stories and convinces itself that they are true. We create a virtual reality making simulations so convincing they are rarely questioned.” Traditions have always been capable of selling a convincing story, telling us who we are, what to believe, and how to live. In 1949, having witnessed the rise of Fascism in Europe, George Orwell published “1984” warning us of the power of propaganda and the potential threat of totalitarianism. In it he says, “who controls the past controls the future”. Back in February. immediately after winning the title, Muhammad Ali announced his conversion to Islam. This past summer I too converted my religion following my mother who found the social activities at the local Catholic church to be more satisfying than those at the Lutheran church. For me the move marked the beginning of an exploration into alternative belief systems and philosophies. The religion of my youth had nothing left to offer and I was now losing faith in my government and society as well. The culture was changing and if I was to navigate the new landscape, I would need a better compass.
chapter 5 - A New Story
As the hours passed, I did my best to keep up with Willie but I was now beginning to lag behind. “Drink up” Julie said to me as he took Willie’s glass away to be refilled. Tipping my head back, to finish my glass, my gaze locked on to a large moose head with a rack of antlers almost four feet wide hanging high on the wall. The long hairy head dominated the room projecting over a large mirror with shelves on both sides lined with liquor bottles standing in three rows, proudly displaying their labels like sentinels with shields. The expression “top shelf” refers to the tradition of storing the finest liquors on the highest tier. The lofty position and stoic expression on the moose gave it an air of authority like that of a judge presiding over a court. The comparison presented a new meaning to “passing the bar exam”. Age, and a capacity to hold one’s liquor, was all that one needed to be a barrister here - that along with being highly opinionated and argumentative. This extraordinary display of taxidermy reminded me of one of my favorite cartoon characters called Bullwinkle the Moose. Two months ago, an animated TV series called the Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle aired its last show. In every show the lovable dim-witted moose would attempt to pull a rabbit from a hat despite countless failures that produced some ferocious animal instead. Such fearless determination in pursuit of magic was to be admired.
In 1961, Buckminster Fuller created the World Peace Game, an educational simulation exercise designed, as he would say, to “Make the world work, for 100% of humanity”, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.” In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book “The Silent Spring”, documented the threat presented by pesticides, awakening an environmental consciousness that would lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The auto and oil industries, the largest producers of carbon emissions, would now be regulated but as Ralph Nader would testify before congress in ’65, would continue to impede the development of electric cars. In 2018, a 15-year-old Swedish girl Greta Thunberg would lead a worldwide movement to end our dependency on fossil fuels while a majority of Republican members of congress, beholden to the oil and coal industries, would deny the reality of global warming. That same party would also deny the systemic racism that has plagued the nation since its inception. Following two administrations of the country’s first black president, they would elect a leader who would be a champion for white nationalism. Wielding a cult like power he would have the unwavering loyalty of his followers eager to believe any lie he would tell. Fearful of losing their vote, Republican senators would bow to him, refusing to acknowledge what they know to be true.
The telephone at the end of the bar rang. Julie answered it, saying “hello, followed by “let me see”. Turning to a patron who was shaking his head, Julie responded to whom I assumed was, the guy’s wife, saying “he’s not here”. Taverns, like poolrooms, were still considered a man’s domain though that was beginning to change. In 1960 “The Pill” was introduced, allowing women to control reproduction, freeing them to attend college, delay marriage, and pursue a career. In 1963 Betty Friedan’s book “The Feminine Mystique” dispelled the idea that a woman’s role should be limited to serving men and raising children. That year the Equal Pay Act was passed, giving women the green flag to enter the work force. This past July the Civil Rights Act made sexual discrimination illegal in the workplace while the years two most popular movies, Mary Poppins, and My Fair Lady, were portraying women as servants. Also popular was a TV show called “My Living Doll” starring Julie Newmar as a sexy female robot. In two years, she would be playing the role of Catwoman on the TV series “Batman”. The transition from an obedient slave to an authority figure would be complete. The Women’s Liberation movement had arrived. By 1968 the Miss America Pageant would be disrupted by women protestors, and Virginia Slims, the first cigarette designed for women would be introduced.
In eight days the doors to the Steeplechase Parks Pavilion, Brooklyn’s greatest amusement park would close. Built in 1897 the enormous glass enclosed building covering almost three acres of land was considered a marvel of glass construction. It would be sold to a realtor who planned to build a hotel on the site. Bitter over the city’s refusal to grant him a permit he would raze the building in a very petulant manner with no regard for its significance. Evading the City Landmarks Preservation Commission the realtor Fred Trump would hurriedly host a demolition party inviting guests to throw stones through the stained-glass windows of the building’s iconic façade as bikini clad models posed for pictures. Fifty years later his son Donald would host his own demolition party. As president of the United States, he would amass an army of right-wing nationalists and white supremacists in a campaign to tear down the democratic ideals America aspires to. Like Crawford who destroyed Willie’s dream, he would intoxicate his supporters with lies leading them astray for his own personal gain, dashing America’s hope of realizing its potential just when it appeared to be doing so. Failing to be reelected, he would order his troops to storm the Capitol and steal the election so he could remain in power. Almost 900 rioters would be arrested, 140 police officers would be injured, and five people would die.
Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” hoped to reduce poverty, and inequality, and improve education and the environment. Donald Trump’s plan to “Make America Great Again” would enrich the rich, oppress minorities, reject science, and support polluting corporations. Like the head of a crime family, he would reign over the most corrupt administration in American history. Incapable of admitting any wrongdoing, he, like the country, would be stuck in an arrested stage of adolescence. Giving him the keys to the car would prove to be a tragic mistake. In 1979 President Jimmy Carter would install Solar panels on the roof of the White House. His successor Ronald Reagan would, immediately upon taking office, gut research and development in renewable energy. He would then eliminate tax incentives for wind and solar energy recommitting the country to its reliance on fossil fuels. In 1986, a hero to a party that opposed environmental regulations, he would triumphantly have the panels removed marking a return to business as usual.
chapter 6 - The Same Old Story
Being careful not to fall off the bar stool I leaned toward the window to peer down the block. I was looking for a crimson red Desoto with a white roof belonging to a family that recently moved into the neighborhood. “I haven’t seen the Gypsies around lately, did they move out? I asked Willie. We assumed they were gypsies by the way they dressed and the tassels hanging inside the car. “Maybe they’re gone.” he replied. “The guy would sometimes stop in for a drink, but I never had a chance to talk with him”. The only other Gypsy I ever saw was a woman who operated a fortune telling concession on the boardwalk at Coney Island reading palms for a quarter. For a nickel at the Penny Arcade, I could watch Esmeralda, an automaton dressed like a Gypsy move a boney hand over some Tarot Cards before dispensing a small card. that might say something like “You are a strong believer in fate” or “You are somewhat irresponsible and have had some trouble mostly caused by inconsideration of others”.
Over the next fifty years I and America would know the consequences for not heeding Esmeralda’s words. During the 50’s and 60’s the prosperity of a booming post war economy and the nation’s inspiring quest to land a man on the moon gave us enormous confidence and pride. We baby boomers believed we were exceptional, and in many ways we were. Unfortunately, we would also be largely responsible for electing politicians who would attempt to steer our democratic system of governance toward an autocracy. The social movements of the sixties addressing human rights and poverty, would lose steam and the disparity of wealth between the rich and poor would grow dramatically. It would be hard to understand how a generation that received more schooling than any other before, known for questioning authority and embracing non-conformity, could turn the country over to an authoritarian leadership electing politicians who would serve greedy corporations rather than a just society and a clean environment.
A half century later the conflicts that divided the nation in the sixties would return. The same political party that resisted passage of the civil and voting rights acts would refuse to cooperate with a newly elected black president in 2008. The anger of the Black Power Movement and the race riots of ’64 would reemerge with the Black Lives Matter movement and the riots of 2014. The 2017 Woman’s March for gender equality would echo the demands of the Woman’s Liberation Movement fifty years earlier. In 2019 environmentalists would once again sound the alarm as evidence of climate change would become undeniable. In 2022 the Roe v Wade decision of ‘73 protecting a woman’s right to have an abortion would be overturned forcing women to fight for their rights all over again. The gay rights movement that would begin in ‘69 would continue to struggle with Christian nationalists who would refuse to recognize gay marriages denying the community of the rights and respect they deserve.
Despite the many changes the country would experience between 1964 and 2024 it would continue to have some of the same immature notions it always had. Americans have always been a sucker for appearances, more likely to be seduced by image rather than substance. The American model of the war hero as portrayed by John Wayne, ignores the fact that he never enlisted in the military and even filed for a draft deferment during World War II. If Willie knew that it apparently didn’t matter. He worshipped The Duke all the same following a code of behavior that would make King Arthur proud. He told me he once asked a stranger in a bar to watch his language because a lady was present. The guy punched him off the stool saying, “who are the hell you, Sir Lancelot”. He ended the story saying, “sometimes you gotta know when to keep your mouth shut”. Always feeling a sense of duty, he would be the only person I would ever know who would donate blood to the Red Cross every year without failure.
The House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals was playing on the jukebox when I heard an argument break out at the other end of the bar. Nick, an old grumpy guy who lived down the block, was becoming belligerent with Julie who was refusing to give him another beer. “No more, go home” Julie said. “Go to hell” Nick replied as he begrudgingly staggered out of the bar. Julie looked over to Willie and I, shook his head and said “Some people just don’t know when they’ve had enough”. Through the window I could see Nick fumbling with his match book trying to light a crooked cigarette dangling from his mouth. I watched him stagger down the block flanked by parked cars on one side and gated airy ways and stoops on the other. No matter where you lived in Brooklyn you were within walking distance from a bar. Relatives visiting from Germany would quickly learn how to say “cross the street”, which meant let’s go to Julie’s and enjoy an altered state of consciousness. Over the next four years, as the popularity of drugs would grow on college campuses. I would “cross the street” many times.
chapter 7 - Getting It Right
Back in June Ken Kesey, celebrating the success of his book “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, gathered his band of Merry Pranksters and drove a psychedelically painted 1939 school bus from California to the World’s Fair in New York City while high on LSD. It would mark the beginning of what would come to be known as the psychedelic era. In 1967 Timothy Leary, an ex-Harvard professor, psychologist and advocate of LSD would sing the praises of the drug persuading college students across the country to “turn on, tune in, and drop out”. By the summer of that year, called The Summer of Love, three hundred thousand young people would join the hippie movement seeking to expand their consciousness, in pursuit of a more natural eco-friendly lifestyle. Many would make life altering decisions with reckless abandon, dropping out of school, quitting their jobs, and leaving their families, marching, as their hero Henry David Thoreau would say, “to the beat of a different drummer”. They would support civil and women’s rights and lead a movement that would bring the war to an end in 1973. The environmental consciousness established by the counterculture would continue, re-emerging forty years later. It would then be opposed by corporate owned politicians and followers of another, far more conniving, pied piper who would ridicule any form of consciousness raising and resist any effort to awaken the conscience of the nation.
Over the next six decades police abuse of Black Americans and corporate abuse of the environment would continue unabated. Johnson’s War on Poverty would be buried beneath massive tax breaks for the rich and trickle-down Reaganomics of the eighties. The right-wing nationalist movement of the Trump era would follow the Fascist playbook, spreading fear and hate with lies and conspiracy theories while sowing doubt in the free press and elections. Faith and trust in government institutions would erode and American democracy, or “The Great Experiment” as it was called by George Washington, would for the first time in its history be in real danger of failing. By 2024, America and I would learn we were, as Willie would say, not as smart as we thought we were. Like every other individual and every other country, we’re all a work in progress. Though American democracy continues to serve some more than others, its conception and design as described in The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution is still one of the best ideas mankind has ever had. It deserves our best effort to get it right.
chapter 8 - Going Home
Over the next 28 years Willie would conduct his role as husband and father from his stool at Julie’s. Like Pop, he wasn’t much of a family man, but he was a good provider, never failing to go to work every day, taking a bus and two trains to the Coney Island Train Yards at the other end of Brooklyn where he worked as a mechanic At age 54, divorced and living alone, he would die from a brain hemorrhage while enjoying a rented movie and a few beers with a friend. Hansey would retire after 30 years of service in the New York City Fire Department, then live to see 343 of his comrades die in 911, before succumbing to emphysema at age 74.
A family photo taken in 1947 shows Hansey at age 10, standing in front of our father who is sitting on a sofa proudly embracing him, myself, an infant, lovingly cradled in my mother’s lap, and Willie, eight years old sitting alone on the floor, all by himself, untouched by either parent. In his teens Willie suffered from breathing attacks and itchy forearms which he’d scratch until they bled leaving ugly scabs. Our mother would drape a towel over his head so he could inhale vapors rising from a large pot of steaming water to which she would add some dark brown paste which made the room stink. Both ailments cleared up within months after he joined the navy, so we naturally believed the salt air somehow cured him. We were told he had asthma but in time I would wonder whether it was panic attacks instead. I would also suspect scratching his arms till they bled was a sign of anxiety rather than an allergy.
From the 1960’s to the 2020’s, like a troubled teenager struggling with emotional stress, America would suffer its own form of self-mutilation. It would be scarred from multiple bombings and mass killings committed by angry white men while angry young black men would continue to riot, burning and looting their own business communities. A violent assault on the Capitol by white militias would deface the institution and make the country bleed with shame. It would become increasingly clear, as long as America refuses to grow up, acknowledge its history of abuse and finally rid itself of racial injustice it would continue to harm itself again and again.
It was getting dark. The streetlight was on, and Doc had gone home. “I gotta go” I said. “Where ya goin” Willie complained as I grabbed my money off the bar leaving a dollar behind. Stuffing the dollar back into my hand he instructed, “you don’t tip the owner, just the hired help.”” Come on, have one more” he insisted. I held my ground, saying I had a school project I had to work on. I was enjoying my classes, dreaming of designing cars like the Mustang on display in the Ford pavilion at the World’s Fair. The GM Futurama exhibit displayed a model of a city of the future with multi-lane highways dominating a miniature landscape. There were no demonstrations or riots on the tiny streets. It all looked so promising and peaceful. Surely the war would be over by the time I’d graduate. Besides, why worry or complain. Life was good. I was a young white male attending one of the best design schools in the country and driving the coolest car on the block.
As I slowly walked to the door trying not to stagger, Willie asked me if I still had the Bosun’s Pipe he gave me years ago when he was in the navy. The two-note instrument was used on a navy vessel to herald the sunrise and sunset, the boarding of a VIP and the departure of a sailor retiring from active duty. I told him I did, and I’d get it back to him. As I opened the door I turned and said, “I’ll look for it as soon as I get home”. After pausing for a moment, I added “maybe you should go home too”. As I closed the door behind me, I could see Willie smiling, saying, “don’t worry ‘bout it”.
I can tell you a story of heartache and glory, but I’ll spare you and cut to the chase.
I can show you the scars I got reachin’ for stars as long as that grin on your face.
For now, I’ll just leave you with a thought I believe you may not have considered before.
Life’s a bottle of beer you drink till you hear that goin’ home song once more.
Here’s to young lovers who’ll tell you their love is the kind that will always be true,
and those past their prime who drink too much wine and say there’s not much they can do.
To those living lives helping others survive and try to make right what is wrong.
When your life’s work is done may there be someone to sing you a goin’ home song.
Goin’ home, goin’ home, I’m drunk and I’m tired and feelin’ alone,
so put the chairs on the table and polish the chrome and play me a goin’ home song.”