The world of mid-century Middle America was not a safe place. It was filled with secrets and lies. The Korean War had ended, but the Cold War–which began almost as soon as World War II ended–was well under way. In school we practiced air raid drills and heard about the DEW line.
The Soviets, our enemies, had launched Sputnik, and beaten us into space. The Rosenbergs had been executed for selling atom bomb secrets to Russia. And they were Jews, to whom– there were whispers– we might have some distant connection through our relatives in California.
Then in 1960 the U-2 spy plane incident occurred. The government tried to cover it over with the fiction that the plane was on a weather mission, but that lie evaporated when the Soviets announced that they had captured the pilot alive. And he was talking.
Secrets in the Attic
The Holocaust was the biggest secret of all. No one talked about it. I read Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny and William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich shortly after it came out in 1960, but it became my secret, like so many others. If you don’t talk about it, maybe it’s not real. And who wants to associate with being a victim? But when strangers—like boys at the local Teen Center—asked me about my background, I usually said “Italian.” I could tell lies and keep secrets (and try out new identities) too.
And those books I found in the attic contained secrets too. Books like Peyton Place and Butterfield 8 and Polly Adler’s A House is not a Home—forbidden fruit for a budding adolescent. Whose books were they anyway? They must have been my father’s. My mother was not a reader, except for the occasional Reader’s Digest or Ladies Home Journal. But what were these scandalous tales that lurked beneath their covers? Was there a secret world hidden behind this small town façade of rectitude and honor? I was busy finding out.
When Escape is Not an Option
What if escape is not an option? Then you need a safe place to hide. For me in the late 1950s and early 1960’s that safe place was my bedroom, where I could close and lock the door.
My mother was best ignored. My father and I argued politics over dinner. He was a traditional small business Republican who held his nose and voted for Goldwater. Seen through his eyes, I was a “Commie,” or—more often—a “Parlor Pink.”
My mother kept her house spotless, with the help of a cleaning woman who came once a week and dusted the antique china which filled the floor to ceiling cabinets in the living room, china on which we never ate. It was decorative, her treasured collection, acquired in trips to antique stores that she and my father visited on his business trips around the U.P.
I hated the Victorian furniture. The house felt like a museum which my friends were not allowed to visit, except to play in the basement; which was also lined with shelves containing copper knickknacks that my father had found in the scrap.
But there was room enough for parties which spilled out in the back yard, where we danced to Bill Haley and the Comets and Elvis Presley, played “Spin the Bottle” and kissed standing up against my mother’s washing machine. The music held its secrets too. They hid in the pulsing rhythms. And the lyrics offered romantic illusions, which later turned out to be lies.
What music did you dance to when you were young? What secrets did you keep from your parents? Did you have a safe place to hide?
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