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Borrowed Time

Looking back after 65 years in this world.

| Mon Jul. 20, 2009 1:53 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

"Being an historian, I am jotting down these notes out of habit; but what I saw and experienced two days ago I am sure no one else as civilized as I am will ever see. I am writing for those who shall come a long time from now."

So began "The Prophecy," a mock futuristic fantasy set after some great Cold War cataclysm, which several members of my high school graduating class collaborated on back in 1962. It was, of course, for our yearbook and made fun of the class, A to Z. It was also a classic document of the moment, written by representatives of the first generation of "teenagers" who, crouching under their school desks as the sirens of an atomic-attack drill howled outside, imagined that no one in their world might make it.

"First of all, let me introduce myself," "I" continued. "I am Thomas M. Engelhardt, world renowned historian of the late twentieth century, should that mean anything to whoever reads this account. After the great invasion, I was maintaining a peaceful, contented existence in the private shelter I had built, and was completing the ninth and final volume of my masterpiece, The Influence of the Civil War on Mexican Art of the Twentieth Century..."

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Okay, so they had me pegged. Not only, in those years, did I read whatever post-nuclear pulp fiction I could get my hands on — you know, the kind with landscapes filled with atomic mutants and survivalist communities — but I was a Civil War nut. Past disasters and future catastrophes, and somehow it all made sense.

I was, in fact, a nut for the American past generally, in part, I suspect, because the familial past wasn't available. My parents, typically enough for second and third generation Americans, were in flight from their own pasts, from all that not-so-distant squalor and unhappiness, or just plain foreign-ness, much the way, once upon a time, so many other Americans had fled small towns for the Big City.

My father rarely spoke of his own life — his parents, his childhood, his years growing up, the Great Depression, and especially his experiences in World War II (and in this he was typical of a generation that did not come home from the grimmest of wars with the idea that they were "the greatest"). My mother acted as if her past were the proverbial blank slate. She told but three stories from her childhood: one in which she broke her nose in a softball game, another in which she jumped out of a second-story window to test whether a sheet would work as a parachute, and a third in which an evil but rich uncle humiliated her loveable but ne'er-do-well inventor of a father.

Perhaps that very past-less-ness left me with a yen for roots, which I then found in the sole place available: American history. Toss in the time an only child had in a room still surprisingly bare of entertainment, and it was hardly surprising that, as early as third grade, I started devouring the biographies — hagiographies actually — of assorted American heroes. They were little books focusing on Kit Carson or Clara Barton with memorably orange covers.

And not so long after, I graduated to the Landmark Books series, back in the days when history was still a series of accepted and acceptable "landmarks": Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia, The Pony Express, Gettysburg, The Panama Canal, Custer's Last Stand. By high school, I was ingesting every book the popular Civil War historian Bruce Catton ever wrote. I was, by then, a proud subscriber to the classy American history magazine, American Heritage, thought of the American past as mine, memorized famous speeches by generals and presidents in my spare time, and so was an all-too-inviting target for a little teenage fun.

Quoits, Anyone?

Tomorrow, I turn 65, an age I simply never imagined for myself back in those youthful years. And the past, I must admit, now lurks somewhat closer to home, as of course does the future, my future. Sometimes these days, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror — the bald head, the mustache that's gone silvery white, the little bumps and discolorations of every sort, in short, that aging face — I see my long-dead father staring back. Each time, it's a visceral shock. Like an ambush. Like a sucker punch in the gut. I feel horror — not him, not in my face! — and love, but not acceptance. Not yet anyway.

I can't begin to tell you how eerie it feels when the past resides not in some book, but like a still-developing snapshot, a blurry subway portrait of the dead, in your own face. It led me recently to pull down from the topmost reaches of my closet some of my old family photos, many of them now beyond meaning, the equivalents of inscriptions in the hieroglyphs of an unknown language. For this part of my private past, there are no witnesses left. Not a one. No one who can fill me in on the dramatis personae.

The oldest of the albums I have, my mother's, I discovered only after both my parents were dead: two-holed and horizontal, a black cover with the words "Snap Shots" on it, each black page now loose of any binding, edges crumbling as if nibbled by mice.

Only several pages in do I first recognize, in an elfin child's face, the woman who would become my mother and would die in 1977, so long ago that sometimes I hardly believe she existed.

There she is, though, perhaps six or seven, standing in a garden in a battered brimmed hat, wearing long rubber gloves, a shirt and pants, and looking for all the world like a street urchin from some Charlie Chaplin silent film. The album is, of course, her story — the one she never told me — of her Chicago world just after the turn of the last century. There are young boys with bikes and girls with flowers, girls doing headstands and boys strutting their stuff, friends lined up arm-in-arm, college students in their toques, and adults who, in their formality, look to be from yet another century. All unknown to me, all lost to whatever lies beneath history, beyond memory.

Still, one thing is unmistakable: this is a record book of dreams and memories. There are her recital cards and yearly marks (E for "accuracy," "rhythm," "theory and hearing") from the Caruthers School of Piano; a "senior ticket" to Hyde Park High School's Junior Prom (which took place at 8 p.m. on March 22 sometime in the early 1920s); there is Camp Wewan-eeta's brochure, its cover autographed in a now faded hand by camp co-director Eva Radzinski ("Hope we may have the joy of having dear Irma with us again this year") and just inside is the camp song, the first of whose many verses is,

"I love Wewan-eeta,
Just think what we do.
There is weaving, tennis, quoits,
And we're good marksmen, too.


Above all, there are the drawings of a girl who, from an early age, dreamed of becoming a commercial artist and, some two decades later, in World War II newspaper ads offering portraits in return for war-bond purchases, would be identified as "New York's Girl Caricaturist." There's her first published sketch, a playbill cover for a high school production of "The Two Vagabonds," with a tiny "Irma Selz" signature snuck in at page bottom. And there's her first appearance in a newspaper, the Chicago Daily Tribune, on April 24, 1924, in a comic strip called "Harold Teen," evidently about a young flapper and her boyfriend.

The middle box of the strip offers possible hairdos for the flapper ("the mop," "pineapple bob," "Sandwich Isle shingle," and "Anita Loos," among others) with a tagline, "from sketches by Irma Madelon Selz," who must then have been about 17 years old. Of "Madelon," which was not her middle name, I know a little something, for even half a century later my mother still found it more beautiful than her actual "Madeline," and still wished her parents, about whom I know almost nothing, had bestowed it on her.

If you hold such an album — and somewhere in most houses one certainly exists — it is hardly possible not to feel the sadness of loss. This single album is, after all, what's left of the early part of my mother's life. It's a story, wish, fantasy, organized, edited, and summarized almost wordlessly by her, and yet no matter how gently you hold the pages, there is no way to prevent the photos from cracking off into the margins, leaving only bits of dried glue behind, while placed on any surface it promptly sheds a tiny residue of black paper ashes.

One could, of course, simply experience this as a kind of pathos — and so fill the emotional space it creates with nostalgia for a lost world. But in the disintegration of such everyday documents, packed away on the top shelves of closets or in bottom drawers, in boxes or garbage bags, worn attaché cases or old suitcases, attics, basements, or garages, there is also an everyday fierceness that we seldom consider.

It's the fierceness of death, and of everything that's lost to us all the time, everything the brain, even a well-functioning one, is incapable of holding. It's the sense of, I think, borrowed time in this world, on this planet. It's everything that, like that face inside mine, remains difficult to swallow. But above all, it's the brief span of our lives, as ephemeral as any set of digital photos.

Racing the Bomb into the World

Thought of another way, however, that familiar face embedded in mine offers the chance for a little whirlwind double bio of the last century-plus. In one merged face, he and I cover a span of history, of change, carnage, and promise so unsettling that it, too, is almost impossible to take in.

The son of a poor immigrant who made good (but just for a while) in America, my father was born in 1907. I have, on my wall, a photo of him at perhaps age two, his older sister, in a white dress, a bow in her hair, sitting beside him on a little bench, her arm proudly around him. She faces the camera with the kind of intentness that went with a slower photographic process. A big white house and trees are behind them. This must be turn-of-the-century Flatbush in New York's Brooklyn, where they grew up.

Perhaps because the action snapshot had yet to arrive, everything seems remarkably still. My father's hair is blond. (I, of course, mainly knew him as a stocky, balding man with graying hair.) He wears a little Buster Brownish outfit and long socks as well as what appears to be a halter of bells (in case he wanders off?). Perched on that seat, he looks tiny, fragile, and a bit dazed, something like a porcelain doll, but nothing like my father. Nothing at all. I can find no resemblance to the angry bull of a man who raged through the golden 1950s, as likely unemployed and drinking as anything else. Nor like the prosperous salesman/businessman of the 1970s, nor the stroke-struck elderly gent (with a mustache just like mine) with whom I spent so much time in the early 1980s.

As I said, he was not someone to dwell on the past. But he did once tell me that he could still remember a man with a horse and cart pulling up to his house with blocks of ice for what was then an actual "ice" box. He was 11 when the War to End All Wars ended, and somewhere I have a picture of him from that time in a little uniform. He could remember buying charlottes russe (ladyfingers and Bavarian cream) — which, decades later out of nostalgia, he would pick up for me from a local bakery — off the back of a wagon on a street near Erasmus High in Brooklyn where he went to school and played lacrosse.

He was 22 when the stock market crashed in 1929 and he was working — doing what? I don't know — for the Swift Meat Packing Company. He was in his mid-twenties when the Nazis rose to power in Germany, and our relatives (some of whom he would later help escape from Austria) began, as Jews, to feel the heat.

In December 1941, at the age of 34, soon after the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, he volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps to fight the Nazis and was sent to India as operations officer for the 1st Air Commando Group, a glider outfit striking behind Japanese lines in Burma. I have a photo of him in full uniform before he left, looking so young and handsome and (a word I wouldn't normally associate with him) vulnerable, with a not-quite-smile on his face. For the second time in mere decades, a world war was underway, and this time it would be so much more global and so much worse.

And here, as the American wars in Europe and the Pacific were reaching a crescendo, in July 1944, I — the other half of that merged face — entered the picture, almost halfway through his life, only three years after Henry Luce proclaimed his century the American one. "Pops" to the men in his unit in a young man's war, he was 37 years old, and had by then been reassigned to the Pentagon. His son arrived just in time to celebrate the triumph of American science and technology, the dawning of a new age.

In the race to be born, I beat the atomic bomb into existence by almost a year. It was first tested in the desert at White Sands Proving Ground near Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945. I was born on July 20, 1944 at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, less than 13 months before an A-bomb would leave the bomb bay of the Enola Gay with "autographs and messages," some obscene, scribbled on it by American soldiers, "greetings" to those about to die and the last human acts of the pre-atomic age.

In an instant, that new bomb would obliterate Hiroshima. And a few days later, the atomic annihilation of Nagasaki would follow, raising the curtain on the next war even before the War to End All Wars (redux) was officially over (again).

A new war, the third global one, this time fought by only two "superpowers," would be icier than the last two, restrained, ironically enough, by what was then called "the unthinkable," the worst that science could conjure up. It was, that is, restrained by the ability of either superpower, after a time, to destroy not just humanity but potentially the planet itself.

By the end of 1945, American troops already occupied one half of the Korean Peninsula, and Russian troops the other. Soon enough, the two nuclear–armed superpowers would be going at it in the only way they could, given the world-destroying weapons they possessed — with bitter fury, but by proxy and "in the shadows," inscribing their nightmare version of a global war for domination on the bodies of Koreans, Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Afghans, and others.

Dreams and My Room

So the atomic age was underway, an age of horror, but also of wonder. Already in 1945, with the war still raging, Belmont Radio ("Today, Belmont's job is to produce high-precision electronic equipment for the Armed Forces...") was typical in offering a vision of a dazzling war-inspired future as Belmont Television: "You can pull pictures from the air as easily as you 'tune in' with your present radio... talking pictures at television's best." The image that went with Belmont's ad showed an impressive wooden cabinet perched atop which was a small screen displaying a cowboy on a bucking bronco.

"[I]n these days of tired bodies and troubled minds, it's good… to think about... the new kind of a home you will have after victory," began a 1944 ad from General Electric, while General Motors ("Victory is our business") swore in ad copy that it would "provide more and better things for more people in the coming years of peace."

Indeed, for the Third World War, aka the Cold War, the arms race and the race for the good life were to be put on the same 24/7 "war" footing. In the 1950s, all the promised big ticket items, including the "electric refrigerator with ample space for everything, frozen foods included" — it had been but a few decades since that horse and cart with ice had pulled up at my father's door — and the "new automatic clothes dryer" were to tumble into new American homes. These, not any event in history, would become the agreed upon "landmarks" of this age along with (soon enough) Mickey Mouse, the Golden Arches, and the Swoosh. A military Keynesianism and its consumer doppelganger would now drive the U.S. economy toward desire for the ever larger car and missile, electric range and tank, television console and submarine, all of which would be wedded in single corporate entities, displaying their wares in your bedroom and selling them in the labyrinthine corridors of the Pentagon.

Here was the promise: From the ashes of war, new wonders would emerge — and so they did bountifully (as well, of course, as further ashes). The buying of big-ticket — and then not-so-big-ticket — items and the making of war with the most advanced technology around, that was the dizzying story of my time (until a frazzled planet's economic system began to melt down in the fall of 2008).

But you wouldn't have known it from my room in the 1950s. In those years, after all, the "teenager" was just being discovered by the corporation. I was part of the first generation of American children who, if they had jobs, as I did every summer from the age of 14 on, didn't have to turn their money over to their families, the first to have more than spare change in their pockets and to be able to choose where to spend it.

I was, of course, living in a country where, with the exception of Pearl Harbor, and Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian islands, there had been no fighting, no ashes at all. In 1945, the United States loomed triumphantly untouched over a ruined planet, and with perfect symbolism, two of that country's secretaries of defense would, in the mid-1950s and again in the early 1960s, be plucked from the presidencies of the great automakers. ("...I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa," GM President Charles Wilson told senators at his confirmation hearings in 1953.)

The imperial vistas of the 1950s were expansively vast and clean — and in the world of the child, looked at from the toy-stuffed, video-game filled, hand-held, ear-glued techno-universe of the twenty-first century, remarkably, sometimes even horribly, often boringly, empty, like the sightlines Baron Haussman cleared on Paris's great boulevards to gun down the mob. From the child's point of view, what's still striking about that Golden Age of suburban consumerism was the relative bareness of its interiors.

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