Who will we be to each other?
When I was ten years old, I sent my only love letter to John Wayne. I watched his films in our small Ohio town’s movie theatre, where he rode beautiful horses, killed bad men, and kissed red-headed women hard and on the mouth. He was the hero I needed and found in a darkened cinema and full living color. I still have the postcard his publicity people sent me on September 3, 1964, with a picture of him from the movie Hondo. The card arrived with a 4 cent Lincoln stamp, and my name and address hand-written in blue ink. The postmark said Los Angeles, California - a place as foreign to me as Paris, France, or New York, New York. At a time before microwave ovens, cell phones, and computers, the mid-1960s in small-town Ohio inspired few aspirational ideas. Girls were destined to be married and pregnant or be pregnant and married, whichever happened first.
I’m sure my parents had hopes and dreams. If so, they were never discussed. We were never encouraged to do well in school and go to college. Our duty was to move through this part of life and onto the next one. My brother got most of the attention of the three kids. Boys were relatable to fathers. Boys would aspire to grow up and be like a father. He would be a boy scout to my dad’s scoutmaster.
Both of my parent’s parents and their ancestors came from Kentucky and West Virginia. Both states sit in the region known as Appalachia. My mother’s town was so small she couldn’t remember the name of it. Ohio pulled my grandparents to its industrial cities with the promise of a factory job. My Pop worked at Goodyear for fifty years. He and Granny had a cute brick house, paid for by making tires for a half a century. They retired to another small house in Fort Myers, Florida, and lived their retirement contentedly where he painted pictures by the dozens. Some were good. By doing so, Mom and Dad’s parents, my grandparents, rescued my siblings and me from two of the ‘ten worst states to live in.’ They saved us from poverty, the lack of jobs, and more uninspiring futures.
After marrying my mother, Dad moved us to the town where I grew up. There, he got a job at the one factory in town, a steel mill. Dad worked his way from the factory into the office by being likable, easy to talk to, and who presented himself well. I would walk with my sister by the mansion-like office in which he worked on the top floor at the front of the building, and Sis and I would wave at him from the sidewalk. He was a salesman, which led me to the same career. His was steel and mine was newspaper advertising. Every night, we would sit at the table and eat dinner as a family, but I never recall him talking about any idea, opinion, or belief. It was not an inspirational atmosphere. No wonder, though. He and Mom were from the Silent Generation and were children of the Great Depression. They faced World War II. They understood what poverty was. Mom quit school to help raise her siblings. The Silent Generation’s goal was to get married early and move away. No wonder I turned to matinee idols, though, I admit the Three Stooges were a favorite as well.
John Wayne eventually gave way to Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, to Jean Luc Picard and to Starfleet’s Captain Katherine Janeway. Space took the western landscape away and became my next imaginary frontier. To this day, I can still do the Vulcan hand sign on both hands that called us to “Live Long and Prosper.” I am in the Baby Boomer cohort. We followed the Silent Generation and grew up with television, transistor radios, and the Apollo moon landing. I left Ohio for good when I was 18, moved to Florida, and found my career in newspapers.
Fast forward a half a century, and my husband brought home a gift of a 2020 calendar with images of John Wayne on every month. I started posting pictures from the calendar on my social media accounts with words of wisdom, or so I thought, from the long-dead actor. In searching for Wayne quotes I thought would be inspiring, I soon discovered the man the young girl idolized became offensive to the woman into which I grew. Words do matter. His 1971 Playboy interview comments surfaced and trended on Twitter in February 2019, exposing him as a white supremacist, anti-gay, and demeaning of Native Americans. The headlines today are filled with the cries to remove his name from an airport and get rid of exhibits honoring his work.
In this time of pandemic issues: COVID-19, race relations, immigration, climate change, and lack of leadership, how do we begin to start solving these problems which continue to go round and round and round?
We do it by leaving behind what we thought we knew. Even at our age, we boomers can learn new ways and ideas. Science tells us people who continue to learn live longer and more satisfied. While I can only speak for myself, one solution for me is radical empathy, a term I heard on an NPR radio broadcast of On Being with Krista Tippett. This thoughtful and thought-provoking program posits, “What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? And, who will we be to each other?”
The interview was with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration, the movement of six million African Americans to northern US cities in the 20th century. Wilkerson says, “Why do human beings do what they do when they’re in that situation? And it calls for radical empathy in order to put ourselves inside the experiences of another and to allow ourselves the pain, allow ourselves the heartbreak, allow ourselves the sense of hopelessness, whatever it may be that they’re experiencing.” She continues, “And so I view myself as on kind of a mission to change the country, the world one heart at a time. And it’s a tough thing to do.”
Wilkerson continues, “When you go to the doctor before you can even see the doctor, the very first thing they do is they give you all these pages to fill out. And they - before the doctor will even see you, he wants to know your history. He doesn’t want to know just your history; he wants to know your mother’s history. He wants to know your father’s history. They may go back to your grandmother and your grandfather on both sides. And that’s before he will even see you. You cannot diagnose a problem until you know the history of the problem that you’re trying to resolve.”
Boomers, the changes being called for, demanded are essential, needed, and oh so late.
There was a time back in the 1950s and 1960s when vacuum cleaners were sold door to door. Hoover and Kirby vacuum cleaner salesmen would knock on doors and work their way into the homes of housewives. They would demonstrate the efficiency of their products by throwing dirt on her floor and miraculously vacuum away all the mess--one door at a time; one housewife at a time; one carpet at a time. Baby Boomers, the time has come to help clean up a mess, one radical empathetic heart at a time.