Today’s Pontificate – Like Joni Mitchell sang, “you don’t know what you got till it’s gone”. My parents’ generation carried with it a culture of family inclusion and friendships and simply getting together on a regular basis to give their own lives an incentive for what was important to them. I witnessed and experienced a piece of that.
My first introduction to relatively unfiltered adult opinion (and language) of any kind was when I was younger.. about 8 to 10 years old (that’s 1959-1960 to the reader). My mother had a collection of friends from her own high school years who later in life after marriage all got together to form a bit of a “club”. They even had a name for themselves… The High Hatters. Now, as I said, this club was all made up of mother’s friends and their spouses. Maybe numbering about 16 adults over all, all from the Greatest Generation bunch. They met each month and rotated the meetings to each of their homes. No kids allowed (and there were a lot of us kiddie boomers at the time); go find a babysitter. In the summer there was a big pot luck picnic, usually in our large yard in Chicago, and all the kids were included. It was organized enough with kid games and various family competition stuff like bag racing, costumes, races with eggs breaking, the usual stuff of the day.
A typical meeting was done at night and near the time any children of the host for that month’s meeting would be going to bed. In our house my sis and I had our own individual bedrooms upstairs (white entitlement I suppose) so we were either tucked into bed or told to sequester ourselves in our rooms when we got older. In our own little worlds under our covers upstairs we would strain our hearing to catch what they were all talking about. I had a feeling there were some taboo subjects and language that my folks were trying to insulate us from even as a youngster. So that in itself made it all the more important to listen intently. There was a particular pattern to all the muffled noise and commotion from downstairs. There would be a bunch of talking.. then quiet as one person talked.. and that was followed by uproarious laughter. It became a game of anticipation waiting for the single person talking and the laughter starting. It was pretty difficult hearing distinct words. As I got older (and wiser) I understood they were all telling “dirty” or off-color jokes or something similar. Into my early teens and allowed more liberties with my time away from home I was usually away at a friend’s house during these affairs. Parents, and their friends, were way too “square” to be around.
As I got older I was able to pick out more words spoken, although these adults did well in speaking low during the off-color humor exchanges. Now, remember, these folks all represented the children-of-the-Great Depression, WW2 and Korea. In fact, Korea had just ended and WW2 had ended just 8-10+ years prior. A couple of these male spouses were hardened veterans. Not a meeting went by without some reference to “those goddamned Japs” or “those goddamned krauts”. In retrospect, a couple of those ex-Marine fellows who served in the Pacific were pretty quiet when the others were loud talking about their experiences. As young boys are curious when listening to real war stories, I always wondered how many of the enemy these guys killed… romanticizing their stories and not realizing the horrors of war. I never asked and no one was bragging. In my teen years I was allowed the occasional “walk thru” the house to get something from the fridge and I’d meet the cluster of men smoking in the kitchen and they’d quiz me on my school studies. Sometimes I would listen to their stories.. like my Uncle Fred flying his B-17 over the Ploesti oil fields and he would use his hands to illustrate how the Messerschmitts attacked his plane. A couple of the Navy vets would talk about fighting “the Japs” in the Aleutians… or manning deck guns in Okinawa. Another gentleman knew fluent German and talked about during the war years how he would never admit that to anyone for fear of social (or other) reprisal.
But then you would get opinions on domestic politics of the day. The ”goddamn Roosevelt democrats” or “that jerk Truman.. I’d like to drop a bomb on his ass!”… “Ike was ok as a general but an idiot as a president”. No one seemed to like Kennedy. “Those damned rich Catholics!”. It’s no wonder TV ‘s “All In The Family” character, ”Archie Bunker”, reflected this generation. A couple of these guys would have made the Ku Klux Klan look like kindergarteners. But they simply reflected the accepted life and times of their day.. a time void of political correctness, yet often ignorant of the changes occurring around them, and the suffering along the racial and economic fringes. Here’s the thing… as these get-togethers stood the passage of time following the war years, my young consciousness woke up to them at a time where I was entering my own “war years” of the Vietnam era. Oh sure, some of their talk was about the current events of my day… the growing hippie movement… kids not able to accept responsibility or authority.. long hair… civil rights and the civil unrest in the South and urban riots (lots of racial opinion)… these folks did not like watching the passing of what had been important to them to what they saw as free flowing sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Yet the High Hatters from their high school days were to be admired for having themselves passed the test of time in friendship and camaraderie. Their collective life experiences working as a lasting bond in keeping them together.
But I took it all in stride at the time and for as impressionable as I could get in those days I never fell victim to some of their biases. I do recall the occasional instance of asking my folks what a particular meaning was in something someone was overheard saying. Appropriately my folks turned such occasions into learning tidbits. My folks had inspired me to respect the authority of adults and I often thought of other adults as an extension of my own parents without question. Gazing from my vantage point I grew to learn that not all adults acted or behaved the same.. and it was ok to question their authority in certain instances. Later in life when I had my own kids and as I reflected back on to those High Hatter days it was far less about passing judgment and far more about understanding that until I walk a mile in their shows I don’t know anything. I am still amazed that the High Hatters managed to keep what they had alive for nearly 30 years.
Now that I am a senior citizen I think back.. and realize that the entire membership of the High Hatters has gone from this life… much like the rest of their generation. Their kids, all nearly the same age as me, are now winding down their lives as well. As kids, we all got along at those yearly summer picnics but that’s as far as it went. As a bit of a historian I would have loved to have recorded all those stories.. and jokes… and chatter… of a generation now gone, and my generation on the brink.Now What?