This is a preface to a book about the nineteen sixties.
The most indelible memory of my childhood was my sixth birthday. It was 1945 and World War II still raged. My mother, Josephine, a petite woman, was a first generation American born to Italian immigrant parents. She decided to take me to New York City from our Brooklyn home to buy me a present and show me a good time. She was a loving mother even by Italian standards, which means that her affection was dispensed in heaping portions, just like her food.
It was a weekday and my dad made a happy fuss about my birthday before going to work, selling insurance. He kissed me, my younger sister, Carole and my mother good-bye. After Dad left, Mom dropped Carole off with my congenial Aunt Rose, who lived nearby. We took "the el" or "the subway," into the big city. It was my first memory of being on a train or going to New York City. I recall the loud, screeching sounds of the train's wheels and the shock of darkness as the interior lights blinked off when we entered the underground tunnels.
I gawked at the tall buildings and the many noisy cars in the city as Mom led me to Macy's department store to get me a gift. She bought me a bright red, railroad boxcar for the Lionel train set I had at home, which I was happy to get. We went to a cafeteria in Manhattan where we had lunch, and celebrated my special day with ice cream sundaes. Afterward we visited the Empire State building, which was the tallest building in the world. My child's mind could barely comprehend the view from the top of the building. It felt like I was at the top of some kind of magical kingdom. Afterward we took the subway back to Brooklyn.
Our adventure into the big city had delighted me. We emerged from the train at our stop, happy, animated and began the walk back to our modest, ground floor rented apartment a few blocks away. The street near the station bustled with people going in and out of shops and stores. I could hear a blaring radio used by one of the shopkeepers to attract the attention of people passing by.
My mother was holding my hand and cheerfully chatting when she stopped, turned and listened to the radio. Suddenly she let go of me, covered her face with her hands and burst into tears. Instantly I felt pain, confusion. Had I done something? As she continued to cry I became frightened. Involuntarily I began crying myself. Mom immediately knelt down and comforted me. She took a handkerchief out of her handbag to wipe away her tears and mine. She then retook my hand and we walked a dozen steps to the shop where the radio was playing. To my amazement the people in there were also crying. I'd never seen adults behave like this before!
While dabbing at her tears, Mom glanced at the radio and asked out loud, "Is it true?" She couldn't believe what she had heard, but nods and tears confirmed her worst fear. It was April 12th. And on my birthday Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States, who had led America through the Great Depression and the World War, was dead.
Later that night my father was sullen and morose. He and my mother talked in hushed tones. I had never seen them so sad before. FDR had been beloved by working class people like my parents. The reaction of those I loved to his death made me feel as though we had lost a member of the family.
By 1957 I was a skinny youth who had just graduated from New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn. My father took our family, including my mother, my sister Carole and my new, youngest sister, Christine on vacation to the Thousand Islands in upstate New York. Dad had rented a cottage overlooking the St. Lawrence River.
In the morning, Mom, invariably busy and cheerful, would make sandwiches and pack something to drink for the daily fishing trips my dad and I would take on the river. Occasionally one of my sisters would come with us, but not usually. Both were revolted by the idea of dealing with worms or fish. During those warm July days, my father, a slender man of average height with thinning hair, and I would motor out in a small, rented rowboat onto the sunlight reflected waterways that wound themselves in and around the thousand isles that were sprouting tall trees, leafy shrubs and wildflowers. Many of the isles also had small cottages or sizeable homes built on them as well as docks for the various boats that enabled the inhabitants to get to and from the mainland.
We fished for pike or trout or whatever we might have luck catching. Once we cut the motor and tossed the anchor, an hour might go by without any nibbles. During this time the boat gently rocked and the water lapped its sides with a soothing, slapping sound. I would comfortably recline, resting my head on the cushion/life preserver provided by the boat rental company and read a book. My fishing pole would be locked firmly in the crook of one arm, while my line dangled over the side, submerged with a well-baited hook.
It was then, in between chats with my dad about how the Brooklyn Dodgers were doing or how President Eisenhower was handling things, and snacking on sandwiches and sips of lemonade that I began reading, "The Crisis of the Old Order," by the late historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. It was a seminal event in my political thinking.
The book was the first in a trilogy that described the hardships and injustices of the system that brought about the Great Depression and how FDR, who had become president, tried to alleviate the suffering by radically changing government's role and how it related to industry, labor, the courts, the banks and many other institutions that effected people's lives. Considering FDR's iconic status in my family, I was interested in learning more about him, especially since he had so many admirers and detractors.
The "Crisis" book and the many ideas it expressed, coalesced feelings, impressions and nascent political thoughts that had been budding in my teen-age brain for sometime. Schlesinger's historical interpretation of the New Deal confirmed for me that a political philosophy that engendered "the greatest good for the greatest number" was preferable to any other.
At one point I put the book down and looked at my father sitting upright in the boat, patiently waiting for a fish to bite.
"What was the Great Depression like dad?" I asked.
He smiled and said, "That book telling you about it?"
"Well it was far worse than any book can describe. When you can't get work, it makes you feel scared not just for yourself but for your whole family."
"Yeah, scared and useless - that's what I remember. It was a terrible feeling."
"Did the New Deal save you?"
"If it wasn't for FDR, I probably wouldn't be here. And if I wasn't here, you wouldn't have been born."
I gulped and went back to reading the book. Now I thought about FDR not as just an historical figure, but as the savior of my father and my family. How people felt about FDR in the future would be the acid test for whether I trusted them or not. Those who liked him, I initially would feel warm and friendly towards. Those who did not admire him, I would hold suspect until or unless I got to know and like them.
The world has changed drastically from the time my dad and I shared sandwiches and lemonade, while chatting in that little rowboat on the St. Lawrence River. A global economy has erupted, bringing back child labor and near-slave labor, which we all thought was so nineteenth century and so passé! The American middleclass, which grew and flourished after World War II, is having it's hard-earned wages as well as health and retirement benefits stripped away as the global corporations rise in power and political influence. It seems that time has shifted into reverse and we are going backwards. The accomplishments of the New Deal, which I thought would last the rest of my life, are being eroded.
I often wish I could go back to that summer in the nineteen fifties, when reading history made me feel optimistic. During those days my dad and I talked hopefully about the future for our family. My father, a hard worker, who loved his children, thought we could and would do better than he had done with his life. Given what has been happening in America since 1981, I often fear the opposite for my children.