Life in Hypertext
The Baby Boom
My mother sits in the pea-green visitor's room, her aching breasts still
bound, drying up. The new baby, a month too anxious to come out, sleeps
behind the antiseptic walls. From a distant time I look over my mother's
shoulder and scan the table of contents of the magazine she pretends
to read, the Atlantic of July, 1950:
What About the British?
The Torpedoes that Failed
The Russians in China
An Explanation - A Poem
The Rescue on Station Charlie
To Wet a Widow's Eye - A Story
H-Bomb: Too Damn Close
How Do You Test a Student?
Corner of Main and Broad - A Poem
Facing Up - A Story
Mid-month, mid-year, mid-century: the watershed where I began; the
divide between a past that wasn't mine, and an onrushing present history.
This particular wave would carry me beyond the heavy seas of my parents'
generation, over the boiling reefs of Bikini Atoll--with the great god
H-Bomb casting its long and awful shadow across the waters--to some
calmer sea, some provisionally safer harbor.
My parents had to suffer not only the Depression but the hell of the
Second World War. I joined their quest for a tranquil resting place,
on my own side of the mountain--if
I may carry the watershed
metaphor to its more literal conclusion. But they always seemed to be
looking over their shoulders, haunted by what lay behind, on the side
I moved faster, went farther. Yet my progress came slowly at first,
by small journeys--beginning with that premature exit from my mother's
smoke-choked body. In the early years I was content to travel in the
comfort of the family station wagon. Much later, on a funky, makeshift
raft, alone or with a crowd of fellow unshaven Baby Boomers, I would
skirt those dying reefs, snapping digital photos and posting them after
sunset to my blog.
In the middle years, inevitably, I set out to blaze my own path--finding
my own mountains to climb, my own streams to quench my thirst and water
A large photograph in the family album shows a smiling ex-officer,
dapper and handsome in his civilian coat and tie, with slicked, short
black hair, on a couch with my mother. They're holding cocktail glasses.
My mother is wearing a long, flowing post-war dress, bright and flowery
even in black-and-white; her shiny lipstick and smiling eyes fairly
gleam out of the glossy eight-by-ten print. Bill and Jane Gray are both
tall, slim and well-groomed, in the prime of life, embarking at last
into the promised "American Century"--already half over.
My parents always thought of themselves (and their offspring) as better
than most. My mother's father was a corn syrup "king." Her
mother used to feel obliged to wear a hat to the grocery store. But
their wealth, for all the pretension, wasn't of any great magnitude.
All that got passed on to me was the commonplace delusion of grandeur,
that I would grow up to be President someday--along with a strain
of stubborn individualism that would make such a goal impossible--or
at least undesirable.
When her first husband contracted a bad case of polio early on in their
marriage, my mother divorced him with scarcely a second thought. She
had better things to do, she explained years later to an inquisitive
son, than tend a cripple. A smoker from age sixteen, my mother would
carry her carton of Salems defiantly to her deathbed.
My father came to the new marriage from humbler beginnings. His mother
was a Russian-Polish immigrant, his father a tobacco farmer turned city
lawyer. Still, young William graduated from high school at sixteen and
joined the Air Force.
"Why not the Army?" the ever-inquisitive son wanted to know.
"Because I knew that while those poor slobs would be sitting in
the mud with K rations, we'd be in the officers' mess eating pork chops."
Getting shot down over France probably taught Lt. Gray some humility--and
maybe an invisible fear that would eat away at him ever after, the equal
of your mother's cancer. On the other hand--or perhaps in some unconscious
habit of compensation--as an upwardly mobile businessman my father looked
with contempt upon rivals and colleagues alike. He held on to some measure
of innate arrogance, an assumed licence to characterize a rival businessman
as a jerk, or his own blowhard boss as an "old blatherskite."
But he buckled to the corporate mold just the same, as long as he could.
What else was a guy supposed to do in "the Great Society,"
while supporting a family of six?
Both my parents' cockiness was undercut in my eyes by their increasing
alcohol dependency. I could sense that they were not wholly to blame,
for their habit was cultural--or further, a symptom of cultural despair.
But neither could they stand so haughty and aloof from their peers.
my first five years we moved three times: from Baltimore to Boston,
then to Syracuse, and back to Baltimore again--places where my father
ran officer's clubs. The constant moves continued when my father finally
said goodbye to the service and got into the oil business. "Oh, your
dad must be in the military," I'd always hear when arriving new in town.
"No, oil," I'd say; "I guess it's all the same." His rise through the
corporate ranks, from retail buyer to executive sales manager, took
five years before landing us, by way of a couple of Baltimore brick
neighborhoods and an Allegheny mountain town, in Suburbia.
I looked up to my father in those days; he carried some of the mystique
of the war, glorified by Walter Cronkite's narration of combat footage
on TV's "Air Power." With the fascination of the still-innocent, I studied
my dad's own collection of grisly, glossy black-and-white photos: aerial
shots of pockmarked landscapes and, closer in, portraits of the black,
bloated dead--soldiers and horses. With reverence I fingered his parachute,
his knapsack and duffel sack, the more benign tools of his trade. I
outfitted myself proudly, in officer's cap and medals, for war games
in the town with my friends. From time to time my father would show
me a long scar on his calf, and, as if in confidence, explain it as
the wound "the Japs" gave him. My mother scoffed that he wasn't even
a combatant in the Asian theatre. He did run an officers club in Japan
for a brief stint during the Korean War, and regaled us with another
tale about eating monkey brains served up fresh at the table. Such is
the mind of a boy to be enamored with a man like that.
world I walked into redefined war and its heroes. I came to know that
I would have to look elsewhere for role models. My older brother and
sister were a couple of fast acts to follow. Steuart, a talented painter,
married a model and became a respected architect. Sally, a straight-A
student, married an all-American athlete and had seven kids. In the
end it was easy for me not to care about following them, because they
(besides being only half-siblings, children of my mother's first marriage)
were of the fifties. Sure, I liked their music--Elvis Presley and the
Everley Brothers--when I was eight years old. But Sal and Steuart would
be well established with families and careers by the time Jimi Hendrix
came burning onto the scene, before the Who would rock the boat with
These folk heroes, too, passed in their time. I turned to the gods
of the more serious professions, literature and politics; quickly rejected
the conventional versions, then experimented with the underground and
Something yet proved missing. I had to go farther--whether faster or
slower I didn't yet know. To find roots deeper than 1950, deeper than
the twentieth century, deeper even than civilization. To taste fresh
animal flesh and blood; to sink fingers
and toes into the soil.
Prologue to Life: A Novel of the Baby Boom
Up in Suburbia
Stories - in rough
The Baby Boom
The Boys in the Park
Trumped in Peckerdom
Of Ducks, Trucks and Bucks
Stephen King through Rose-colored
The Meaning of Life
- a novel of the baby boom
and Introductions . . . without end
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