Growing up we watched Leave It To Beaver reruns. You have to understand, we didn’t have many options. There were, in the New York City area, six channels to watch. You had your three networks – ABC, NBC and CBS, and you had PBS and then you had local indie channels WPIX and WNET. Those last two ran all kinds of reruns, and we grew up soaked in the pop culture of older eras.
Leave It To Beaver was like a transmission from an alternate universe to a kid growing up in 1980s New York City. Its blandly pleasant suburbia and the characters’ edgeless lives were hypnotically boring. Their troubles were hysterically minor, their behavior ludicrously flat and dull. This was the 1950s to us – a decade of stultifying conformity, repressed years of bloodless conservatism. It always seemed fitting to me that Leave It To Beaver left the airwaves five months before JFK was shot.
Growing up obsessed with the late 60s I just couldn’t understand the 50s as anything except something against which to rebel. I wasn’t a stupid kid – I knew about beatniks and greasers, I knew about Jim Crow, I knew it wasn’t all Beaver Cleaver out in those streets – but I also understood that the pop culture image of the decade reflected, if not the reality of the 50s, a kind of massive societal magickal thinking – this is what a large portion of of the American population wanted it to be like.
I just couldn’t understand it. Until now.
Hugh Beaumont played Ward Cleaver, Beaver’s dad (recipient of the famous – apocryphal? – line “Dear, don’t you think you were a little hard on the Beaver last night?”). He was a good dad – patriarchal but not cruel. Beaumont may have been a little older than actual dads at the end of the 50s, being born in 1909, but I imagine his life experience wasn’t so far off from the parents of kids Beaver Cleaver’s age across the country.
Beaumont would have been born in an America caught up in urbanization and mechanization; cars were on the streets alongside horses. It was an exciting new day. And then, when he was five, World War I broke out. In the middle of that, when he was nine, the Spanish Flu cut through the world. After the War to End All Wars concluded it looked like smoother sailing, and the Roaring 20s came in, along with Prohibition. Heady days for a teenager… but when Beaumont turned 20 the whole world came crashing down again, as the Great Depression hit.
That one, of course, rolled right into World War II, a conflict that shattered the psyche of the planet. The scale of carnage was intense, but more than that were the twin horrors of the atom bomb and the Holocaust – proof of man’s evil and evidence he finally had the technology to truly act upon it.
Learning about this history it always seemed like just a series of events. But living through history in the 21st century I know that it’s more than just a series of discrete happenings; there’s a sense of it ever ending, of a continuous series of interconnected events that never allow us to get our bearings, that keep knocking us off our feet. And our pandemic is not as bad as the Spanish Flu, and we haven’t had the kind of casualties the World Wars accrued. We actually have it better than people of Beaumont’s generation – even our catastrophic financial disasters have (thus far, fingers crossed) been easier than theirs.
Is it any wonder that when the dust cleared and they could take a breath all they wanted was nondescript suburbs? That they wanted quiet politeness, that they wanted a well-manicured lawn to offer the kind of security they had not enjoyed for the previous few decades? What I saw as stultifyingly conformist was exactly that, and it was that because these people wanted control and they wanted to know what was coming the next day, and the day after. They’d had their fill of surprises and horrors. They wanted stability.
For the first time ever, I get it. I’m tired of waking up to discover what new calamity is hitting us, how the government is failing us, what cruelties our system has inflicted, how horrible people are to one another. I’m tired of people being mad online, of a nasty primary, of a terrible President, of a failing economy, of a world on the brink of epidemic disaster. I’m exhausted by the state of the world, which feels more chaotic and dangerous than it has since I was a kid, practicing duck and cover nuclear war drills in the hallways of PS 164. Ten quiet years looks pretty good to me right now.
I think this is the part of the essay where I’m supposed to say “But you know, the truth is…” and then flip and reverse the whole thing. Maybe I can get there in a couple of weeks or months, when this current lockdown is over or when we have a vaccine or when there’s a new President in office. But in the meantime I’m just going to say that I’m tired, and I bet you are too. Tonight I hope my dreams are in black and white, and that the worst thing that happens in them is that one of my kids lends out three dollars of the school cookie fund to an older kid who refuses to pay it back (season 2, episode 35, The Cookie Fund). That would be lovely for a change.