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Life Arts    H4'ed 1/20/14

Getting Ahead--The American Nightmare

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Mom and Dad
Mom and Dad
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This photo of my parents reveals much about their personalities (hers vivacious and outgoing, his withdrawn and closed off), their relationship (little real contact), and also the times (could be captioned Gender Roles in the 1950s: The Bathing Beauty and the Soldier).


The typicality of their lives reveals much about the USA. My mother was a farmer's daughter whose father lost the farm to the banks, and they had to scrabble along in the slums of the big city, St. Louis. All her life she yearned for her bucolic childhood when everything was "nice." My father was a coal miner and the son of a coal miner from West Virginia . He hated the mines so much that after the Second World War he stayed in the military as a professional soldier.


Both were imbued with the all-American drive to get ahead of the pack, to wrest advantage over others. My mother's great-great-grandfather had gotten ahead by owning slaves, using their stolen labor to become wealthy. Although he died decades before she was born, she spoke of him with patriarchal reverence, telling what a good master he had been. His slaves loved him so much that during the Civil War they protected him from Yankee soldiers by hiding him in a well, then hauling him back up when they were gone.


She admitted that not all masters were that kind, though, and she felt slavery wasn't a good thing. But it was the only way for the Negroes to come to America. Most of the Europeans could afford to pay their way over, but the Africans didn't have money, so they signed up to be slaves in order to come here. Deep down my mother knew this wasn't true, but she repeated it as a litany to shore up the family myth that great-great-grandfather had been a good man, hadn't done anything wrong in achieving his success. When slave labor ended, so did the family's advantage. Their fortunes declined, and her father lost the farm in the 1920s before the Depression. But they were still much better off than the descendents of the people whose unpaid work had generated the wealth.


My father managed to become an officer in the Second World War, making the leap from working class to middle class. In the 1950s he was stationed in Colorado as the state coordinator for civil defense. He organized the Ground Observer Corps, groups of citizens who gathered on the roofs of tall buildings to scan the skies with their binoculars. He gave them cards showing silhouettes of Soviet bombers, and if they saw an airplane that resembled those, they were supposed to immediately inform the authorities. He gave presentations on making basement bomb shelters: where the secure corners are, how much food and water to store, how to give first aid for radiation burns. When I eagerly asked him when we would be making our bomb shelter, he said we weren't going to: Basement shelters were useless against atomic weapons. The whole thing was just a scare campaign to convince the public of the need for a strong military to counter the communist threat. He didn't disapprove of the campaign, though. It was his job, providing us with food, clothing, and bombless shelter of considerably higher quality than coal mining would have.


But he chafed under the limited horizons of military life and was always seeking ways to get ahead, to get rich. One of these was through radio stickers. When the communists attacked, all the commercial radio stations were going to stop broadcasting and clear the airwaves for two military stations that would inform the public on civil defense measures. My father invented stickers that people could buy and put on their radio dial at the frequencies of these two stations so they could instantly find them. But the invention was not a great success. Since all the other stations would be off the air, anyone could just spin the dial and find the two military stations.


He also invented a clever display mechanism that would make beer bottles appear to float in the air behind the bar, circling and hovering in front of the eager customers. He journeyed to the headquarters of the major beer companies and presented it to the marketing managers, but none of them recognized its brilliance.


Although fortune eluded him, he found military success in Colorado and was promoted several times. The state was fertile ground for civil defense; the threat of war and annihilation was deeply rooted. The first defenses were forts erected against the Native Americans from whom the Europeans had stolen the land. These forts and their commanders are proudly commemorated today in the names of cities and military bases. Some have been restored as shrines for patriotic indoctrination.

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William T. Hathaway is an award-winning novelist and an emeritus Fulbright professor of creative writing. His peace novel, Summer Snow, is the story of an American warrior falling in love with a Sufi Muslim and learning from her that higher (more...)

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