Long Island, 1963
Lately I’ve been thinking about the place and time where I grew up (inspired, in part, by Paula Munier’s fabulous book, The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings.) My home town was a large suburban community right next to Levittown, which came to be seen as the epicenter of the Baby Boom. I grew up among road after road of ranch houses. All the streets were named after builders’ daughters. (My street was Cynthia Drive.) The few trees were mimosas and they were stunted. There were no historical markers. Years later I found out that Eleanor Roosevelt’s childhood home had been within walking distance of my own and there was no sign. I couldn’t wait to get out of there, and when I was 16 I went to college and never moved back. However, as I think about it now, I’m struck by how many fascinating things were going on in those quiet little houses. The place I thought of as bland and boring was actually a hotbed of drama. For one thing, almost all the men, and some of the women, had served in World War II. By the time my childhood rolled around, twenty years after the war, the repercussions of combat were starting to bubble up. There was pride in service, there was grief and occasionally violence. Memorial Day was an emotional time. The VFW hall was as solemn as a church. There were also a number of concentration camp survivors. It was not unusual to talk to a friend’s mother and notice she had a tattoo on her arm. I sensed a gratefulness to be in our country, along with a skittishness from having survived. It was absolutely forbidden to teach German in my school, and no one drove a Volkswagen. To do that would be considered a traitor. Then, of course, there were all the social changes bubbling underneath. One of my most vivid memories is of a neighbor playing baseball with his son. His son was gay, though we didn’t use that word then, but his father must have suspected his orientation and decided to try and change it by teaching his son to be a pitcher. For hours the two of them would be out on their yard, father and son getting more and more upset, because the son was not much of an athlete. That went on for a long time. And then, around the corner from me, lived a boy who went on to become the worst serial murderer in Long Island’s history. Though at the time my brother and I knew him, he was just a kid who was always trying to play basketball with my brother. So many stories! Seems like there would be something to write about!