Wednesday, May 09, 2007

*Hard Times In Babylon- Growing Up Among The Working Poor In The 1950s



Recently I wrote a personal commentary about a childhood friend from back in the old neighborhood where I grew up in the 1950’s (see "An Uncounted Casualty of War", May 8, 2007 archives). I have also been re-reading the recently deceased investigative journalist David Halberstam’s book "The Fifties" that covers that same period. Halberstam’s take on the trends of the period in contrast to the reality of my own childhood experiences as a child of the working poor that missed most of the benefits of that ‘golden age’ rekindled some memories. It is no exaggeration to say that these were hard times in Babylon. Those events have also made me reflect on why the hard anti-communist politics of the period left people like my parents high and dry. The defeat and destruction of the left-wing movement, principally pro-communist organizations, of that period has continued to leave a mark on today’s political landscape and on this writer.

There are many myths about the 1950’s to be sure. However, one cannot deny that the key public myth was that those who had fought World War II and were afterwards enlisted in the anti-Soviet Cold War fight against communism were entitled to some breaks. The overwhelming desire for personal security and comfort on the part of those who had survived the Great Depression and fought the war was not therefore totally irrational. That it came at the expense of other things like a more just and equitable society is a separate matter. Moreover, despite the public myth not everyone benefited from the ‘rising tide’. The experience of my parents is proof of that. Thus this commentary is really about what happened to those, like my parents, who did not make it and were left to their personal fates without a rudder to get them through the rough spots. Yes, my parents were of the much ballyhooed and misnamed ‘greatest generation’ but they were not part of it.

I will not go through all the details of my parents’ childhoods, courtship and marriage for such biographic details of the Depression and World War II are plentiful and theirs fits the pattern. One detail is, however, important and that is that my father grew up in the hills of eastern Kentucky, Hazard, Harlan County to be exact, coal mining country made famous in song and by Michael Harrington in his 1960s book "The Other America". This was, and is, hardscrabble country by any definition. Among whites these ‘hillbillies’ were the poorest of the poor. There can be little wonder that when World War II began my father left to join the Marines, did his fair share of fighting, settled in the Boston area and never looked back.

By all rights my father should have been able to take advantage of the G.I. Bill and enjoyed home and hearth like the denizens of Levittown described in Halberstam’s book and shown on the classic television shows "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Leave It To Beaver". But life did not go that way. Why? He had virtually no formal education. And moreover had three young sons born close together in the immediate post-war period. Furthermore he had no marketable skills usable in the Boston labor market. There is no call for coal miners here. My father was a good man. He was a hard-working man; when he was able find work. He was an upright man. But he never drew a break. Unskilled labor, to which he was reduced, is notoriously unstable, and so his work life was one of barely making ends meet. Thus, well before the age when the two parent working family became the necessary standard to get ahead my mother went to work to supplement the family income. She too was an unskilled laborer. Thus, even with two people working we were always dirt poor.

Our little family started life in the housing projects, at that time not the notorious hell holes of crime and deprivation that they later became but still a mark of being low, very low, on the social ladder at a time when others were heading to the Valhalla of the newly emerging suburbs. By clawing and scratching my parents saved enough money to buy an extremely modest single-family house. The house was in a neighborhood that was, and is, one of those old working class neighborhoods where the houses are small, cramped and seedy, the leavings of those who have moved on to bigger and better things. The neighborhood nevertheless reflected the desire of the working poor in the 1950’s, my parents and others, to own their own homes and not be shunted off to decrepit apartments or dilapidated housing projects, the fate of those just below them on the social ladder. This is social progress?

But enough of all that. Where in this story is there a place for militant political class-consciousness? Not the sense of social inferiority of the poor before the rich (or the merely middle class). Damn, there was plenty of that consciousness in our house. But where was there an avenue in the 1950’s, when it could have made a difference, for a man like my father to have his hurts explained and have something done about them? Nowhere. So instead it went internally into the life of the family and it never got resolved. One of his sons, this writer, has had luxury of being able to fight essentially exemplary propaganda battles in small left-wing socialist circles and felt he has done good work in his life. My father’s hurts needed much more. The ‘red scare’ aimed mainly against the American Communist Party but affecting wider layers of society decimated any possibility that he could get the kind of redress he needed. That, dear reader, in a nutshell is why I proudly bear the name socialist today. And the task for me today? To insure that future young workers, unlike my parents in the 1950’s, will have their day of justice.

No comments:

Post a Comment