I often wonder where my cynicism comes from. It certainly isn’t a sign of age, because I’ve had this view of life since adolescence.
Where did I go wrong?
Where did we go wrong?
After all, we were the generation that was supposed to change the world, to make it better for everyone. To end all dividing lines-racial, gender, sexual preference-and create peace and harmony.
And instead, we are responsible for MTV, SUVs, and “Who Wants to Marry A Millionaire?”
When did the path to making the world better become the road to riches? When did we discard the helping hand, only to replace it with finger-pointing and road rage?
This isn’t just me facing 50 in panic. Many of “my generation” sit back and ponder on the changes we were supposed to make, and didn’t.
Where did we lose our way? When did we lose sight of hope? What good have we done in the world?
Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, one couldn’t help but feel mankind was not hopeless. Our teachers, aunts, and uncles kept telling us “all you need is love.” And we believed it.
So, what did happen to “my generation”? Where did we make that wrong turn?
Vietnam is what happened to us. No matter our age, if we were alive in the 1960s, we were touched by that war. We had fathers, brothers, uncles, and sons who were in it or ran from it or died from it. Vietnam changed the way everyone looked at everything.
Growing up in the television generation as I did, it’s hard not to remember the grainy foreign images, the body bags piling higher and higher, the faces of people who were there, or knew someone who was there, or worse, knew someone who never came back from there. This was a powerful shaper of my perceptions.
Yes, I was young, being one of the last Baby boomers born in 1960, but since the U.S. was in ‘Nam until 1975, I was shaped by it.
I think I was more torn by it than most of my fellow teens. By the time Saigon fell, I was well into my teen years, living in San Francisco with an uncle who visited Canada for a few years, and another who grew “funny plants” in his bedroom, and many relatives who were very anti-government and –war, vociferously so, I might say. But I spent my first decade of life as a military brat. Duty, Honor, Integrity, Follow orders no matter what, all that glory b.s. military brats are raised on. It’s still ingrained in me all these years later, so you can see it was a powerful influence.
But I also have a mother who was very much against the war, very much for peace and love and the other mantras sung at the time. When we moved to San Francisco, I was surrounded by an entire neighborhood of people who felt like she did, and who looked askance at anything that reeked of military precision.
Small wonder I’m ambivalent about life at this stage.
If you believe, as I do, that we held onto so much hope and promise until 1975, then the answers as to where we went wrong are clear, but not so easy to iterate. Not without getting sloppy and sentimental and maudlin, and I’m not that old yet.
It should come as no surprise that I turn to books in this crisis of faith for answers. They are hard to find. But not impossible.
And I found some in the least likely source-Stephen King.
King, pop horror hero, is known for his gruesome visions and lengthy tomes. Not a place many of us would look for answers to life crises, you think?
In a novel, Hearts of Atlantis, King explores the questions I’ve been asking myself for years. I always thought I was the only one who might have these questions, or else, the only one brave enough to question what we’ve become, those of use now running the planet.
I was wrong. King explores the entire question of who we were before Vietnam, and who we all became after the green of the jungles had faded into dim nightmares and cold night sweats.
And he managed to put into words what I never could.
Speaking of what he calls “the legacies of the Vietnam experience,” King says:
“We were the generation that invented Super Mario Brothers, the ATV, laser-missile guidance systems and crack cocaine. Our idea of a major lifestyle change is buying a dog. The girls who burned their bras now buy [them] from Victoria’s Secret…we like to watch…movies, video games, live car-chase footage, fistfights on The Jerry Springer Show, Mark McGwire, World Federation Wrestling, impeachment hearings, we don’t care we just like to watch. But there was a time…when it was really all in our hands…”
And without holding back, King tells us exactly what happened to us: “It had been in [our] hands, [I am] quite sure of it. But kids lose everything, kids have slippery fingers and holes in their pockets and they lose everything.”
We did have it all, and now we don’t. We are a generation who despises who we are and what we’ve become, even as we scramble to become more of what we loathe.
As King’s aging Boomer character Sully says, “We had an opportunity to change everything. We actually did. Instead, we settled for designer jeans…tickets to Mariah Carey…frequent flier miles…Titanic…and retirement portfolios.”
And we never really left Vietnam.