The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon
In my tenth year, in 1970, my family—my mom, my dad, my seven-year-old brother, and I—moved into the American suburbs. More precisely, we moved to the town of Lexington, Massachusetts, a community of thirty thousand people which sat a dozen miles outside Boston. Our home, which cost $30,000, was like a child’s drawing of a suburban home: a square block with a door and a window on the ground floor and two windows on the story above, one looking out from my bedroom and the other from Tom’s. A single big maple spread its branches over the front lawn and the driveway, dropping leaves on the maroon Plymouth that carried my father on his daily commute. We were as statistically average as it was possible to be, a near-perfect example of the white American middle class then in the process of rocketing to a prosperity—a widespread, shared, suburban standard of living—that the world had never before seen. We lived, and this is the truth, halfway down a leafy road called Middle Street.
So what the hell happened? How did we go from an America where that kind of modest paradise seemed destined to spread to more and more of the country to the doubtful nation we inhabit fifty years later: a society strained by bleak racial and economic inequality, where life expectancy was falling even before a pandemic that deepened our divisions, on a heating planet whose physical future is dangerously in question?
Since the suburb has dominated our landscape over those decades, some of the answers must lie there—and in the generations that grew up there, those of us baby boomers who still weigh so heavily on the political and financial life in the United States. As Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote, his fears as a young Black man were somehow “connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets.” That was my pot roast, and I’m convinced he’s right—that you can see some of the roots of what went wrong back in those shady streets of my boyhood. And not only with race, but also with democracy, and with the planet. I’m convinced, in fact, that Lexington, because it was both very typical and slightly set apart by its place in American history, provides an unusually sharp lens through which to view those times, and our time. I’m curious about what went so suddenly sour with American patriotism, American faith, and American prosperity—the flag, the cross, and the station wagon. I’m curious if any of that trinity can, or should, be reclaimed in the fight for a fairer future.
I’ve never thought my own history was much worth recounting, because it was mostly free of the angst and suffering that have anchored memoirs in recent years. That’s why for much of my life I’ve concentrated on telling the stories of others as best I can. But perhaps that very averageness is the thing that makes my own history a little useful, at least if we’re trying to understand what went wrong. This is as much memoir as I’m likely to write, but it’s as much the story of a place as of a person.
So let me tell you about two important events that happened in 1971, the year after we arrived in Lexington. I was aware of one of them at the time; the other I learned about only recently. In deference to Dr. Seuss, a literary staple of that era when books were already fighting a rearguard battle against TV, I will call those events Thing One and Thing Two, and they will be touchstones throughout this book. But to understand them, you need to understand the particular town they were set in. And if you didn’t live through that time, perhaps this short recounting of one town’s history will give you a feel for the truly remarkable rise of suburbia.
LEXINGTON WAS WHERE the American Revolution began in 1775, and we will return to that history throughout this book. But by, say, 1900, its past was past, and its present was largely … dairy. The community produced more milk on its small farms than any town in Massachusetts save one. The milk rode the train into Boston each morning—but so, slowly, did more and more residents; as the twentieth century began, Lexington was in the process of turning from a farm town into a bedroom community for the expanding metropolis. From thirty-eight hundred people in 1900, it grew to thirteen thousand by the start of World War II—and then, in the war’s aftermath, it took off, more than doubling in size by 1960. Which was exactly what was happening everywhere else—between 1950 and 1970, America’s suburban population nearly doubled to seventy-four million, with 83 percent of all the country’s growth coming in such places.
One of the few modern histories of Lexington was sponsored, appropriately, by the town’s bank, and the introduction to that volume concludes: “As 1946 dawned, the town of Lexington was faced with the challenge of employing and housing returning veterans and educating their children. The great American postwar expansion was about to begin, and with it came the ‘baby boom.’ Lexington Savings Bank was ready to support this growth with savings accounts and mortgage loans.” Savings accounts and mortgage loans will be central preoccupations of this book, but at the time they must have seemed mundane and obvious features of a rapidly multiplying prosperity. By 1949, the local newspaper was reporting on proposed bids for a big new high school; a new four-story wing was under construction at the local hospital where four hundred babies had been born in the previous twelve months; and the town’s Board of Selectmen were discussing “the phenomenal expansion” of Lexington in the postwar years, with 947 new permits granted for single-family dwellings. That expansion was just beginning. By 1952 (when Clarabell, the clown from television’s Howdy Doody Show, made a much-awaited appearance at a local shoe store, and construction began on a “new, ultra-modern” A&P grocery store with “a self-service meat department and automatic doors”), school enrollment had begun to set new records that would continue to be broken each fall for decades.
If there were a few dark shadows—the civil defense agency wanted to blood type all residents “in case of atomic attack,” and the town’s first air-raid test fizzled when “the fire whistle malfunctioned and sounded for a full ten minutes instead of a series of short bursts”—most of the news from the ’50s and early ’60s was about progress and growth. Color television had “its first public showing” in 1954 when the local appliance store unveiled the latest Motorola; the Salk vaccine eradicated polio (and without resistance from local residents); a sonic boom, “the first purposeful breaking of the sound barrier in the Greater Boston area,” enlivened patriotic observations in 1956. Yes, the town’s oldest tree was cut down in 1960, a victim of Dutch elm disease, and yes, odor complaints finally led to the revocation of the license for the town’s last remaining piggery, but against that, “the Beatles, an English musical group causing international news,” landed at the local airport en route to a Boston concert. And the local garden center reported selling a ton of birdseed every week, even as mosquito control authorities announced their success spraying a miracle agent, DDT, from helicopters over the town’s wetlands to control that ancient pest.
As the 1960s wore on, however, even the most bucolic suburbs couldn’t escape the tensions starting to roil America. Hanscom Field, the U.S. Air Force base that straddled the town line and where the Beatles touched down, grew noisier as the war in Southeast Asia expanded; the Air Force’s Electronic Systems Division was established there to consolidate its electronic systems under one command (the computerized network for detecting incoming ICBM warheads was eventually called the Lexington Discrimination System). More and more local boys were drafted—one wrote in 1965 to say he “would pay $1,000 to be able to lie down at the Lexington Common with a tall glass of iced tea.” That same year NBC arrived to film an hour-long special, The World of the Teenager. Town pride at being selected for the documentary “turned to anger” when the show aired, local historian Richard Kollen reports—footage of local youth learning to waltz in jacket and tie or long dresses was intercut with scenes from “rock and roll dance parties” and “coffee houses,” reflecting what the narrator called “a teenage restlessness, stirring, and doubt. Throughout America there is a widespread dissatisfaction among young people with what has been handed down to them, with adult values and with established tradition.” Kids complained to the camera that the town was dull, with nothing for them to do; the police chief insisted that the trouble was “over-permissiveness in the home.” One adult explains: “I think this is the period of the individual. They now are taking a notice-me attitude.” A town official asks, “How can we get and keep them back into the mainstream of our orderly social and civic life?” Not easily, as it turned out—over the next few years the newspaper is filled with accounts of the police busting up “pot parties,” with “blaring rock’n’roll, marijuana cigarettes, and plenty of whiskey and beer.” (One week the crime blotter reported two local youths who had “cooked marijuana in the oven at one of their homes.”) By 1968, “a long-haired Lexington High School male student was sent home and told not to come back without his locks properly shorn. After he complied and returned to school, students circulated protest petitions noting the hair length of Mozart and Paul Revere.”
The town struggled gamely to keep up with a changing world: by 1970, the year I arrived, the first dead soldier had come back from Vietnam in a coffin, and Ralph Nader appeared in town to give the library’s annual lecture, blasting both air pollution and hot dogs, which he called “innovations to relieve food companies of all their crud.” A ban on that suddenly-not-so-miraculous DDT went into effect on January 1 of the new decade, and barrels were placed outside the Department of Public Works barn to collect the pesticide. The selectmen—one of whom was now a woman—declared January 15 Martin Luther King Day.
So consider all that as the backdrop to the two events I want to describe. This is a town that has grown quickly in population and prosperity, a town that prizes education and modernity, a town struggling to come to terms with rapid change, in a country where new kinds of people are making new kinds of demands that thrill some and worry, even anger, others. It’s a place that’s going to have to make some choices.
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