One night, one early 2007 night, Peter Paul was in a pensive mood. He had just written, half-tear written for lost youth and fallen youth comrade a personal commentary about a childhood friend, Kenny Callahan, from back in the old neighborhood in North Adamsville where he grew up in the 1950s and who had passed away some time before. He had also at that time been re-reading the then recently deceased investigative journalist David Halberstam’s book, "The Fifties," that covered that same basic period of his teary remembrance. Strangely Halberstam’s take on the trends of the period, in contrast to the reality of his own childhood experiences as a child of the working poor that missed most of the benefits of that ‘golden age,’ rekindled some memories, a few painful.
It was no exaggeration to say that those were hard times in Babylon for the Markin family (or the Breslin family either up in textile mills-dependent Olde Saco, Maine). Not so much for individual lacks like a steady (and reliable) family car in order to break out of the cramped quarters, house on house, where he lived once in a while. Or the inevitable hand-me-down clothes (all the way through high school, almost), or worst the Bargain Center bargains that were no bargains (the local “Wal-Mart” of the day to give you an idea of what he meant). Or even, for that matter, the always house coldness in winter (in order to save on precious fuel even in those cheap-priced heating oil times) and hotness in summer (ditto, to save on electricity so no A/C, or fans).
Those, and other such lacks, he noted, all had their place in the poor man’s pantheon of hurts and lacks, no question. That was not the worst of it though, not by a long shot when he thought back on those red scare cold war times (but what knew he then of such connections). No, what, in the end, make things turn out badly for him and his kind, was the sense of defeat that hung, hung heavily and almost daily over the household, the street, the neighborhood at a time when others, visibly and not so far away, were getting ahead.
Some sociologist, some academic sociologist, for, sure, would call such a phenomenon the death of “rising expectations.” And for once they would be right, or at least on the right track. Thinking back on those times had also made him reflect on how the hard anti-communist politics of the period, the “red scare” had left people like his parents high and dry, although they were as prone to support those repressive governmental policies, as reflex action if nothing else, as any American Legion denizen. Moreover the defeat and destruction of the left-wing movement then, principally the pro-communist organizations of that period, has continued to leave a mark, and a gaping vacuum, on today’s political landscape, and on him.
There are many myths about the 1950’s to be sure, some media-driven, some simply misty time-driven. 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, gladly or kicking and screaming, 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 (World War II just so there is no question about which in the long line of American wars we are talking about) 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 Peter Paul’s parents is proof of that. Thus this commentary is really about what happened to those, like his parents, who did not make it and were left to their personal fates without a rudder to get them through the rough spots. Yes, his parents (and mine) were of the now much ballyhooed and misnamed ‘greatest generation’ but they were not in it.
Peter Paul did not want to go through all the details of his parents’ childhoods, courtship and marriage for such biographic details of the Great Depression and World War II were (and are) plentiful and theirs fit the pattern. (Moreover, he was uneasily aware that he did not know, know for sure, many of the specific details like where they first met and stuff like that.) One detail is, however, important and that is that his father grew up in the hills of eastern Kentucky, Hazard, near Harlan County to be exact, coal mining country made famous in song and story 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, he emphasized (and made a little joke about it too, about his father telling him between the Pacific War bloodbath and the mines he took his chances with the former) that when World War II began his father left the mines to join the Marines, did his fair share of fighting in the Pacific, settled in the Boston area and never looked back.
By all rights Peter Paul’s father should have been able to take advantage of the G.I. Bill and have enjoyed home and hearth like the denizens of Levittown (New York and elsewhere) described in Halberstam’s book and shown on such classic 1950s television shows as “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave It To Beaver.” But life did not go that way, not at all.
Why? He had virtually no formal education. Furthermore he had no marketable skills usable in the Boston labor market. There was (and is) no call for coal-miners there. And moreover he had three young sons born close together in the immediate post-war period. Peter related that his 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, his mother had gone to work to supplement the family income. She too was an unskilled laborer. Thus, even with two people working they were always “dirt poor.” I have already run through enough of the litany of lacks to give an idea of what dirt poor meant in those hard times so we need not retrace those steps as they apply to the Markin family...
That little family started life in the Adamsville 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 his parents had eventually saved enough money to buy an extremely modest single-family house. Hell, Peter blurted out to me while relating this part, why pussyfoot about it, a shack. The house, moreover, 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, his parents and others, to own their own homes and not be shunted off into decrepit apartments or dilapidated housing projects, the fate of those just below them on the social ladder.
But suddenly Peter Paul turned to me to said enough of all that. He was finished, or as finished with the details as he was going to be. Where in this story though is there a place for militant left-wing political class-consciousness to break the trap? Not in an understanding of the sense of social inferiority of the poor before the rich (or the merely middle class). Damn, there was plenty of that kind of consciousness in his house (and painfully mine as well). A phrase from the time, and maybe today although I don’t hear it much, said it all “keeping up with the Jones.’” Or else. But where was there an avenue in the 1950’s, when it could have made a difference, for a man like Peter’s father to have his hurts explained and have something done about them?
Nowhere, nada nunca nada. So instead it went internally into the life of the family and it never got resolved. One of his sons, my friend Peter Paul, 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. His 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 Peter Paul made a point, made a big point, as we ended our talk of saying that he proudly bore the name communist today. And the task for him today? To insure that future young workers, unlike his parents in the 1950’s, will have their day of justice. Good luck, Peter Paul.