“Mom, what was it like when the war ended?”
I hesitate a bit before I answer Clementine’s question. It’s a difficult question for me to answer–not because of what was going on in the world in 1975, but because of what was going on in my life; it’s hard to admit that I was more interested in the end of Sonny and Cher than the fall of Saigon. All I can say in my defense is that, to a seven-year old, there was lots of more interesting stuff going on: The Streak–considered by most discerning seven-year olds to be the BEST SONG EVER–was playing continuously on nearly every radio station; The Wallace and Ladmo Show–The Simpsons of its day (at least in Phoenix)–was on TV every single weekday morning; and, to top it all off, Mattel had just introduced Barbie’s new best friend, the “Kelly” doll, something that finally gave me reason to hope that one day I, too, would grow up to be a statuesque redhead.
All these things float through my mind as I drag out my answer, trying to put off the inevitable moment when I’ll have to admit to Clementine that–on this, too–she is much more hip now than I ever was at her age: when I was her age I didn’t even know what a war was. And even though I would like to be able to tell her that I remember watching protests on TV, or that every car either sported a “Make Love, Not War” or a “Love It or Leave It” bumper sticker, or even that every conversation I eavesdropped on contained funny-sounding words like Mai Lai, Da Nang, or Saigon, the truth of the matter is that I was much too wrapped up in starting a Monkees tribute band (I would be Peter Tork) to notice. Eventually I manage to come up with a lame: “Well, why do you ask, dear?” in reply (hopefully said in the thoughtful and sagacious manner of Hugh Beaumont from Leave it to Beaver —right down to the pipe in my mouth).
“Oh, I was just wondering what it was like–you know, the rationing, the air raid drills. Did you have a victory garden?”
And that’s when it hits me: all this angst was for nothing– she’s not talking about the Vietnam War; she’s talking about World War II. I spit out my imaginary pipe in indignation.
“Hey! I wasn’t even born when World War II started– or ended; Grandma was barely born then. What makes you think I’m old enough to remember World War II, anyway?”
She gives me a look that clearly says, “What makes you think I’m stupid enough to answer a question like that?” before sidling away, but it’s too late: the damage has been done. Suddenly I’m one of The Ancient Ones; a genuine piece of “living history.”
But how can that be? What about my nearly perfect recall of 1975 (well, my part in it, anyway)? How, I think, can I be old when I can so clearly remember what it was like to be young? But then I really think about 1975, and I wonder: what do I really remember? After all, even though I can obviously still recall the facts of my youth ( the names of everyone on Wild, Wild, West, or the lyrics to “Hotel California,” for instance), I find I have fewer and fewer memories of the essence. Of what it was like to have to eat something I found disgusting. Or to share a room with someone I (at least temporarily) despised. Or even to be more interested in the Monkees than in the tragedies unfolding all around me. And that’s when I finally realize what my answer should have been all along:
“What was it like when the war ended? It was great.”