The Road Trip of History
I guess I’m like every other child of the mid-century. Some of the very first memories I have of the world outside my home and back yard are about being aware, first in an amorphous way, and then with more clarity, of the daily nuclear threat we lived with in the 1960’s, the height of the ever-so-paranoid cold war. Yellow triangular civil defense signs were everywhere, school kids practiced drills that involved hiding under their desks to protect themselves from a nuclear blast; the Cuban missile crisis and the Bay of Pigs invasion had happened during my very early childhood, too early for me to remember. We all knew without ever having been specifically told that one too-itchy finger on the button, and we’d all be annihilated. Somehow I had absorbed or invented for myself the concept of mutually assured destruction, and so, at age 6, 7, 8, and a long time thereafter, I took comfort in believing that no one with any good sense at all would ever push that button, knowing that the Russians would immediately push their button too, and then we’d all go up in a mushroom shaped cloud.
I see now that I was not only an optimist, but a miniature linear Progressive. I pictured myself in a great big car, riding with all humanity along the road on which we travel in a more-or-less straight line through history, from inequality, ignorance, incivility, warfare, hatred, and all that stuff that even my 6-year-old self knew was bad, toward love, peace, understanding, and…well, you know, all that stuff that even 6-year-olds know is good. Even as every night, without fail, the TV showed us video footage of young men fighting a war in a far-off place, a war that seemed endless, still I knew in my bones that these were just bumps in the road, and when we got past them things would improve, because that’s the direction in which the great big car was inevitably moving. Toward better things for everyone.
Were we there yet? No, but no doubt, we’d get there.
There was war here in this country during my childhood, too. News reports of “racial unrest”, as they used to call it when I was a little kid, were quite frequent. I was 9 in the summer of 1967, and had just started listening to top forty AM radio with some regularity, when several days of rioting tore the city of Milwaukee apart; I heard all about it on WOKY and WRIT. We lived 30 miles, a whole world, away from North 3rd Street, and what little I recall is filtered through the prism of 50 years and my parents’ interpretation of the news. I now suspect my dad thought Father Groppi should have minded his own business like a good priest and stayed in the pulpit. Local TV stations started running the “It’s 10 o’clock…parents, do you know where your children are?” announcement, which I found to be mysterious and a little disturbing. I asked my mom what a curfew was. More growing pains, more bumps in the road; but pains to endure, the reward of which was that we, well, the adults anyway, would resolve all these black-white problems, and then we would all live together in harmony, or so my 9-year-old self believed.
Were we there yet? Not by a long shot.
1968, and in April Dr. King was shot dead, and then just two months later Bobby Kennedy was shot dead. That photo from the Ambassador Hotel, the one in which the 17-year-old busboy is crouched next to Bobby Kennedy, lying spread eagle in a pool of his own blood, haunts me to this day. I came to the conclusion that important people in politics get murdered on a regular basis, and was a little surprised when it didn’t happen again in another two months.
August of 1968, and I watched TV coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, not even half understanding what was happening and who the people involved were. In my 10-year-old mind, I had no idea who those weirdoes with the long hair were or what they wanted, only that they must be bad people because they were getting arrested. There were regular reports on various news broadcasts of people, women, Black, young, all doing something called “demonstrating”, which didn’t make much sense to me, because I knew demonstrating meant explaining how something works to someone, like show and tell.
Anyway, not having to go fight in a war, having equal rights, stuff like that, those seemed like desirable goals to 10-year-old me. Were we there yet? No, but maybe we were getting a little closer.
There were other events that my small-town-Midwestern-kid self never knew about until much later. 1969, riots in Greenwich Village that started in a place called the Stonewall Inn. 1977, and someone named Harvey Milk was elected to a city supervisor seat in San Francisco. 1978, and he was shot dead. 1979, and the guy who shot Milk dead was acquitted of murder on the grounds that he’d eaten too many Twinkies, and was thus mentally unhinged.
Time went by. Women started doing things they’d never done before. Sandra Day O’Connor. Sally Ride. Carol Moseley-Braun. Mae Jemison. Madeleine Albright. Condoleeza Rice. Hillary Clinton.
Were we there yet?, because they kept telling us we’d come a long way, baby.
Meanwhile, in my world, I was starting to make what would become a life-long home in theatre, where homosexual men and women were, at first, if not out, then at least accepted with a tacit understanding of what they were. Gay? Lesbian? I can’t remember the first time I heard those words or understood what they meant, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t until my college days, the late 70’s. Throughout the decades of the 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s, those people who had hidden, swallowed, or lied about what they really were so they could keep their jobs, or their safety, or their lives, they began to refuse to hide. They started to demand that they be seen and respected, and more, that they be accorded the same rights as everybody else.
Harvey Milk was the first openly gay elected official in this country. He said, “I ask my gay sisters and brothers to make the commitment to fight. For themselves, for their freedom, for their country. We will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets. We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I’m going to talk about it.”
Gay people coming out. Not there yet, but that brought us a little closer still.
2008, and a Black man was elected President of the United States. People said we were now in a post-racial America. Were we there yet? The day President Obama was inaugurated it felt like we were a lot closer.
2008, and Sean Penn won the Academy Award for his portrayal of Harvey Milk in the movie about his life. 2009, and President Obama posthumously awarded Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 2014, and the US Post Office issued a Harvey Milk stamp.
2015, and gay and lesbian people could get married. To each other. 2016, and the US Navy christened a ship the USNS Harvey Milk. Surely we’re there now. Aren’t we?
August of 2016, and a Milwaukee cop shoots a young Black man who is running away after his car has been pulled over. Within hours, what begins as a demonstration (there’s that word again) turns violent, and two days of destruction, fire, and fighting ensues. Governor Walker puts the National Guard on standby. Milwaukee Sheriff Clarke blames liberals, particularly President Obama. The series of events gets international news coverage. It’s now just a week later and there’s already a Wikipedia article entitled 2016 Milwaukee Riots.
Dr. King, that guy who was shot back in 1968, said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It seems he was a believer in linear progress too.
Are we there yet?