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Tom Engelhardt: How the Movies Saved My Life

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Headlined to H4 11/17/11

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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Every childhood has its own geography and every child is an explorer, as daring as any Peary or Amundsen or Scott. I was the mildest of children, such a picky eater that my parents called me a "quince" (a fruit sour enough, they insisted, to make your face pucker, as mine did when challenged by any food out of the ordinary). I was neither a daredevil nor a chance-taker, and by my teens scorned myself for being so boringly on the straight and narrow. I never raced a car, or mocked a cop, or lit out for the territories.

Still, by the luck of the draw, as a child of the 1950s, I was plunged into a landscape more exotic than most American kids could then have imagined. It was still devastated by war, populated to a startling extent by present and former enemies, and most amazingly, the Germans, Japanese, Italians, and Russians (not to speak of the French and English) I encountered there were thrillingly alive in a way everything in my life told me we Americans weren't.

Let me explain, geographically speaking and as personally as I can. I grew up at 40 East 58th Street, just off Madison Avenue, in the heart of Manhattan, two blocks from the Plaza Hotel, where Eloise got her hair cut. Apartment 6D -- "as in David," we always said.

My parents moved there in 1946, just after World War II. It was two doors down from the Plaza movie theater, and getting to 6D was an exotic affair. You exited a small, gated elevator into a modest-sized corridor, apartments on either side, only to find yourself on a catwalk in the open air looking down on what might have been the low roofs of Paris. A stroll along that catwalk and a right turn into another corridor got you to our rent-controlled duplex with its living-room skylight under which my mother -- "New York's girl caricaturist," as she was known in the gossip columns of the war years -- regularly set up her easel. My room was upstairs.

The fifties are now recalled as a golden age when Americans, white ones anyway, burst into the suburbs, while all the consumerist gratifications deferred by the Great Depression and World War II were sated. It was the age of the television set ("Bigger screen" Brighter picture" Better reception") and pop-up toasters, of Frigidaires and freezers big enough "for the whole family" ("holds 525 pounds!"), of "extension" phones, wonder of wonders, ("I just couldn't get along without my kitchen telephone"), and cigarettes so "soothing to the nerves" that doctors and baseball players alike were proud to endorse them.

With good jobs and rising wages in a still war-battered world, the United States stood so much taller than the rest of the planet, manufacturing the large items of the peaceable life (cars, above all) and the advanced weaponry of war, often in the same dominant corporations. It was a world in which Bell Telephone, that purveyor of extension phones, could also run upbeat ads aimed at boys extolling its weapons work. (As one began: "Chip Martin, college reporter, sees a "talking brain' for guided missiles... "Glad to see you, Chip. Understand you want to find out how our Air Force can guide a warhead a quarter of the way around the world. Well, look here...'")

Inexpensive gas, cheap well-marbled steaks, and reliable warheads that might end life as we knew it -- that seems like a reasonable summary of the obvious in American life in those years. And if you were a kid and wanted more, Hollywood was there to deliver: it was a time when, on screen, the Marines always advanced before the movie ended, and the sound of a bugle meant the bluecoats were coming to save the day. It was the moment when, for the first time in history, teenagers had money in their pockets and could begin to spend it on clothes, records, and other entertainment, propelling the country into a new age in which the Mad Men of that era would begin advertising directly to them.

Bad Times in an American Golden Age

I knew that world, of course, even if our little "icebox," which iced over easily, was no Frigidaire. Living in the middle of Manhattan, I could catch the all-American-ness of life by taking a three-block walk to the RKO 58th Street movie theater at the corner of Third Avenue where, popcorn in hand, I'd settle in for a double-feature version of the world as it was supposed to be.

There, too, I could regularly see my father's war. Like so many of those we now call "the greatest generation," he was silent on the subject of his war experience (except for rare rants about "war profiteers" and "the Japs"), but that mattered little. After all, what did he have to say when the movies taught me everything I needed to know about what he had done in his war?

Because the then-liberal rag the New York Post assigned my mother to draw the Army-McCarthy hearings (being broadcast live on ABC), we got a TV for the first time in April 1954. Of course, the sitcoms I was allowed to watch, like Hollywood's war films, Westerns, and comedies, had a remarkable tendency to end tidily and on an upbeat note. Unlike movies about my father's war, however, I had something to compare those sitcoms to and, much as I loved Father Knows Best, it bore not the slightest resemblance to anything my hard-pressed mother, angry father, and I were living out. In it, I could find no hint of the messy psychic geography of my own childhood.

For my nuclear family in those first years of the nuclear age, it was bad times all the way. In the middle years of the decade, my father, a salesman, was out of work and drinking heavily; my mother brought home "the bacon" (really, that's the way they spoke about it then), which -- I have her account book from those years -- was excessively lean. They were struggling to keep up the appearance of a middle-class life while falling ever more deeply into debt. The fights about "Tommy's doctor bill" or "Tommy's school bill" began as soon as they thought I was asleep.

Among my most vivid memories was creeping out into the light of the hall, propping myself up by the stairs and listening, mesmerized, as my parents went at it below with startling verbal violence. Think of that as my first perch as a future writer.

Like most kids in most places, I assumed then that my life, including such eternally angry nights, was the way it was for everyone. My problems, as I saw it, didn't actually begin until I stepped out onto 58th Street, where, as far as I could tell, a landscape strangely empty of interest stretched as far as the eye could see.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 
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