These are children who, unlike too many in the world at large, are blessed beyond measure, and they are too young to know it. Too young to realize that elsewhere, even in our own country, some kids go to bed cold and hungry or struggle to survive against a backdrop of turmoil and violence. Unbeknowst to them, my grandchildren are spoiled by the luxury of the middle-class American comfort they were born into--and that nearly sixty years ago, in 1952, I myself was born into.
When I think about these things, I can't help wondering at what point they will become aware of that larger world that spins crazily just beyond a playroom full of toys and a shelf of Disney movies. What will be the national or global events that will worm their way into the complacency of their childhood, impress themselves upon their psyches, and shape their worldviews?
I think about what those events were for me, a child growing up in the '60s. If I were to pick the three most likely to have left a lasting impression on me, they would be, in chronological order,
- the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962;
- the John F. Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963;
- the first appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964.
Then, in what seemed like overnight, the Cuban Missile Crisis came along and scared the bejesus out of me. Everyone was talking about nuclear bombs. Missile silos were dug into the countryside around our little town, and the ominous yellow graphic denoting a "fallout shelter" went up at the Crown Drug Store downtown. At school we practiced getting under our desks and putting our arms over our heads as civil defense sirens shrieked out frequent test runs. To this day, I have never been more frightened. I did not want to die without the chance to grow up first.
When tensions between the U.S. and Russia subsided, life resumed a near normalcy. President Kennedy had stood up to Kruschev, and the missiles would be removed from nearby Cuba. Then, one afternoon in the middle of sixth-grade social studies, we got the word that the President had been shot. Minutes later came the word that he had died. It was November 22, 1963, my mother's 39th birthday.
There is black and white TV footage from that week that is indelibly printed in my mind. The motorcade snaking through downtown Dallas. The waving. The smiling white teeth. The pillbox hat. The shots. The slumping. The flag-draped casket. The horse-drawn caisson. That eternally beating drum. John-John in that little coat holding that tiny flag. The grimace of pain on Oswald's face.
Years later, when I visited Dealey Plaza in person, I could not fathom its utter smallness. I had expected it to be somehow huge, like the event birthed there. But the street was narrow, the second-story window tiny, and the grassy knoll a mere bump. These things may have appeared muted in real life, but in the soul of me they had transcended all physical proportions.
I have often wondered if other children of the '60s were affected by these events to the extent that I was. They changed the way I looked at the world, replacing my cockeyed optimism (to borrow a phrase from South Pacific) with a new reality that seemed a lot less secure. There were people who wanted to kill each other, and no one was safe.
Therefore, when John, Paul, George, and Ringo hit the airwaves on Ed Sullivan later that school year, they crooned their tunes to a troubled and disillusioned audience of tweens and teens hungry for their simple harmonies and love-imbued lyrics. The fact that all the adults hated their haircuts (which seem pretty tame these days) made them even more attractive. It was easy to get caught up in the crazed frenzy of their audiences.
I, for one, got into Beatlemania in a serious way. I plastered Beatles posters over every inch of my bedroom wall and saved up my allowance to buy every record they released. When I was a freshman, the four lads from Liverpool were the subject of my first official research paper. To this day, "Let It Be" remains one of my three favorite songs of all time.
Certainly there were other world-rocking events that must have affected children before and after me with a similar gravity. But these were the things of a global nature that took me to new emotional depths and heights. They were pretty momentous influences for a kid ten or eleven years old.
And so, I wonder what the years ahead hold for my grandbabies, the three that are already here and the two on the way. I wish I could shield them from the fear and sadness, but I know I can't. Those are unavoidable realities of this world.
But, by golly, I know the entire Beatles repertoire by heart. Give me a couple kids and a rocking chair, and I'll bet that in five minutes I can have them convinced that all they need is love.