Breaking Through

Breaking Through

In September 1664, Jan de Decker sailed up the Hudson with a cargo of powder and forty slaves recently arrived in New Amsterdam from Barbados. His errand, beyond turning a profit, was to meet with the English at Orange to discuss the surrender of Dutch territory to British rule. By all appearance he had abandoned his country to pursue his own fortune.  His descendants, small farmers and village artisans, multiplied and fanned westward from the Hudson Valley through the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes region of New York State, intermarrying with the English and French.

Three hundred and four years later, never suspecting that anyone in my line had engaged in such traffic, I worked with my peers to clean up the waterfront of Peekskill, New York. We made an apt crew: Frank, Paul, Ben, and myself: shoulder-to-shoulder, two white and two black. We were the “Can-Do’s,” a group of volunteers from Saint Peter’s, the boarding school I attended as a result of my brother’s brush with the law. My parents had wished to remove him from his circle of quasi-delinquents. They’d given me a choice: go with Tom or attend Brighton High, living at home as an only child. Sibling allegiance and family unity allowed no room for hesitation: I chose to go. I might have gone anywhere to escape the boredom of another suburban school year, but to me at that age the Hudson Valley with its mists and crumpled landforms seemed an enchanted if melancholy country. Just north of Peekskill, upriver from Bear Mountain Bridge, the navy stashed a fleet of destroyers left over from World War II. In rainy weather their profiles might pass for a ghost squadron commanded by Hendrick Hudson.

In ill-fitting gloves we gleaned a mixed refuse: broken bottles, government forms, torn clothes, a mysterious green ash. We avoided the fish that gave the shoreline its distinctive odor. They lay everywhere, in varied stages of decomposition, with staring, desiccated eye, like lost souls. Out on the water, freighters shuttled back and forth between Albany and New York City. Behind us, on the elevated right-of-way, New York Central freight and passenger trains rolled north and south. Train and ship horns wailed into far longitudinal distances. Peekskill itself saw little commerce, and dull brick factories lay in ruin about the shore. Only the nuclear power plant at Indian Point, south of town, offered a promise of revival. For now this stretch of Hudson shore existed as an unpatrolled waste, a space for dying and discarded things, the sluggish wave depositing an oily detritus. I made no complaint. I liked this dreary beach set amid dead wharves on a notoriously polluted river. “Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river” sang in my head. The far shore lay in full sun, and as the clouds broke I entertained visions of caravels swinging out of the sky to take us away. There was no mistaking the futility of this enterprise: within a week our effort would be erased. But it offered the grit of a hands-on activism, put us in touch with a world we knew we would have to address—the true nasty condition of things our parents and most of our teachers had lied about. For youth there is tonic in seeing the world ugly, as it is.

Breaking Through

I didn't want to battle my parents over their views. ... their attitudes had no place in the world I was coming to know.

Manhattan, to someone from western New York, was like London to youth raised in the Yorkshire Dales. No other place could be so fully real, exhilarating and sensationally dangerous. The eros that powers the world lies beneath the pavement like a radioactive ore. The air is charged, and everything vibrates with the density of an ongoing human procession. Streets and avenues and the infinitude of high buildings channel the current; around every corner one meets an incoming sea. People’s bodies are electric—brown, black, and white bodies, cloaked and broken down, lithe and scarcely covered. It got so I could tell native from tourist at a glance. Even the white people from Manhattan held themselves and spoke distinctively as though it made an ethnic difference not to grow up in the suburbs on meatloaf. The very smell of the city stretched one’s capacity to register sensation, for you met, all at once, everything from the stench of the alley to the coffee and roast chestnuts and chutneys of street vendors to the sweat and lavender and bubble gum wafting off the group at a bus stop. So full was the tide of impressions that you had to acquire skills in navigating your way and get over the novelty of circuslike streets if you didn’t want hustlers accosting you. To stand at the south end of Central Park was to find oneself at the center of the universe. Just inside its southwest corner I experienced for the first time hearing all around me, in exchanges generated by dozens of conversations, language other than English. My first actual trip to the city had been that summer when the family drove downstate to look at the Saint Peter’s campus and then south another forty miles to attend the World’s Fair. But the fair was in Queens, and while technically that put us in New York City, it was not the city of Times Square and Central Park and the Empire State Building. My strongest memories of the World’s Fair are of intense heat, a pervading smell of Belgian waffles, and the sight of three people, a young man, an old man, and a teenage girl, at three different points in our visit, stepping out from the crowd to double over and vomit, right there on the sidewalk. I might on that basis have connected New York City with the idea of excess, but I hadn’t yet seen much of the world, and there was too much of the city still to know before removing it from a life’s itinerary.

Weekends spent at Paul’s afforded great opportunity to explore the city. His mom would drop us off at the Dobbs Ferry station around ten. We’d board the train, which reeked of cigarette and newspaper, and sit back as it bumped from station to station in lower Westchester before entering the vast plain of apartment buildings in the Bronx and Harlem. Simply crossing the border into the northern borough gave cause for elation, and I lost myself in eager study of block after block of drab brick tenement. By eleven we were hiking up from Grand Central Station. We grabbed lunch at a greasy spoon off Times Square. Then we headed to the park and mostly walked around or sat and observed—listened to people speak the French, Spanish, and English of the islands, conversed with folk who approached to talk politics and then ask for coin.

New York City became for me a collage of familiar sights. There was a school somewhere on the Upper West Side where the Saint Peter’s fencing team would go for competitions, and the way there brought us down Lenox Avenue, crossing to the west on 125th, straight through Harlem. One evening a group from the school went down to Lincoln Center to see Carmen with Leontyne Price in the lead role. Rightly considered, Carmen serves as a lesson in class, and I was vaguely aware that here was a portrait of poor people’s lives. But such awareness only enhanced the evening’s most vivid impression, that of the opera hall’s red plush opulence. In this enclosed and artificial world you met the glitter of the concertgoer—women decked out in shards of glass, immaculate men resembling John Lindsay springing for refreshments that would have emptied my wallet of a year’s allowance. Another door to this expanding universe was the high, narrow portal of Saint John the Divine, where the glee club joined choral groups from other area Episcopal schools for Christmas and Easter services. Beneath the great vaulted ceiling the thundering surge of pipe organ, trumpet, timpani, and bell totally annihilated a teen singer’s voice, lost at once in Gothic space—vague, vast, dark, and thick with incense. From loft to nave people here were far more diverse than at Saint Paul’s Church in Rochester: black, brown, and casually dressed worshipers all had a place. The drive down and back up Amsterdam Avenue figured in the trips to Saint John’s. I pondered the relationship between a church and the world that surrounded it. In the way a person can detect new meaning in the words he has heard all his life, I recall being struck, one morning, during regular weekday chapel at the school, by reference to the poor and the multitude. I saw now not the ragged extras in the Bible movies of the era but people you would see any day on the blocks approaching the cathedral. New sights, new sounds had jolted me out of my perpetual daze.

In trips to Central Park I paid increasing attention to groups holding placards. Some huddled to decry instances of local discrimination, not always intelligible to tourists. From sophomore year forward there were larger and more vocal bodies, black and white standing together, protesting the Vietnam War. The grisly photos that “Vietnam” invokes for anyone born before 1960 had begun to make a weekly appearance in Time and LIFE magazines. Three of the younger faculty members took a group of us down to the park to take part in a demonstration. To the populist chords of acoustic guitar, the vision of Justice that had enlisted youth in the struggle for civil rights now rallied a fervent opposition to this war. Although I had grown up in a Republican family that wanted to believe the country went to war honorably and only when other options failed, from the time I gave any thought to this war I saw that it served no good purpose.

Peculiar emotions accompanied a young person’s recognition that the Vietnam War was wrong. I had known from middle childhood that adults made bad decisions and that powerful men were willing to stake the whole world on a single play. The war exemplified this arrogance and stupidity. Its prolongation revealed a tolerance of carnage disturbing to see in one’s elders. Their trite justifications made it clear that youth not only had the right but also the duty to judge for itself. The war provided ground for a generational break far exceeding the normal separation of adolescent child from balding parent. To discern the older generation’s authority as nonbinding made for a collective euphoria. In your soul you seconded what the speaker at the rally, what the vocalist at the rock concert, publicly declared: that the war is over because we say it is.

Yet only radical longhairs were taken in by the histrionics of protest. And a genuine sadness underlay the theater of youth assertion. In this awakening I shed a belief instilled in nearly everyone brought up in middle-class homes following World War II: that the United States would go to war only in a just cause and prevail not only or even principally by virtue of superior fire. Young people were angry with the remote men who had engineered this shadow usurpation. There was something childish in their laughable equivocation—their wish to use the terms conflict and military action, their refusal to call the war war. Perhaps this contributed more than anything else to the change in the way youth perceived the legitimacy of the paternal regime. The white dad of the late 1950s had presented a benignly military aspect, genially presiding over a peacetime prosperity, a boxy affluence of contented wives, carefree children, and jaunty days scored by Leroy Anderson. This deeply beloved, industrious mannequin, farsighted and unseeing, beneficent of motive but obtuse to the claims of others, had always fixated on the security of his world’s borders. He was obsessed with national and neighborhood boundaries: having lived through Pearl Harbor, his nightmare was the surprise attack. His domino theory required the Soviets and Red Chinese to plot destruction of our landlocked cities. He could never be sure that blacks and Asians weren’t on the communist take. With the Vietnam War these fixations had become psychotic. By the mid-sixties the father’s justness, benevolence, and sanity had vanished in what seemed an Abrahamic mania to sacrifice Isaac. This patriarch with his strict partitions, his despotic sense of other people’s duty, was the problem. Young people had to theorize and occupy an alternative world alongside his.

About the book: Kodak Elegy documents Decker's coming-of-age story and the ways in which he confronted a complex world beyond his home in the Rochester, N.Y., suburbs.
About the book: Kodak Elegy documents Decker's coming-of-age story and the ways in which he confronted a complex world beyond his home in the Rochester, N.Y., suburbs.

1968: my junior year, the end of the world. In the gloom of a Hudson Valley February, boys a year away from registering with the Selective Service absorbed images of the Tet Offensive—a punishing of American hubris so complete that even a war protester felt chilled. Three soldiers defending shattered fortifications, each gazing in a different direction. A firefight on a narrow city street. Corpses by the blackened wall of the U.S. Embassy. A pistol firing point-blank into the temple of a captive Vietcong. Refugees on a rural road littered with bodies, the sky behind them aflame. Dead and half-dead peasant bodies seared of their clothing, hair, and skin. Then March: during Easter vacation President Johnson goes on TV to announce that he won’t seek a second term. April: Father Swafford interrupts chapel to tell us that Martin Luther King Jr. has been assassinated. Finally, June, end of the school year: word breaks on the eleven o’clock news that Bobby Kennedy has been shot. In the morning we learn that he too is dead.

For my father and me the war had become a matter of heated discussion. Our exchange followed a script read by fathers and sons in kitchens and living rooms across the country. I had seen the world, some of it, anyway, and had concluded that it was only too easy to live on a winding suburban lane and believe the war existed to some purpose. From my parents’ window the view was plain. The World War II generation had bled to hold the line on totalitarianism, and now, on a larger stage but in a more limited war, it was the sons’ turn. As the war dragged on my father’s opinion altered: John Kennedy had gotten us into Vietnam, but, once in, see it through! That another Kennedy, the pretend senator of New York State, elected courtesy of New York City Democrats, should aspire to the presidency to get us out of Vietnam was absurd. Meanwhile, my brother had turned eighteen, and a boy from the old neighborhood had been killed in action. To my father, Canada wasn’t an alternative. But he had come to see the war as a blunder and at least acknowledged the mess on our hands. Frailties had begun to appear in his step. I didn’t want to do battle with him.

I didn’t want to battle my parents over their views. Whatever I said made little difference. Like artifacts drawn from a time capsule, their attitudes had no place in the world I was coming to know. In fairness to them I bore in mind their honorable early privations. They had seen it all: war, want. They had earned enough money to disregard trouble that didn’t involve them directly. They rarely ventured from the home ground and cherished the thought that my brother and I, having traveled about, would return to its formidable shelter. To me their life was a steady narcosis. I had escaped intellectually, or so I imagined, and had begun to theorize my parents as creatures of set demographic trends. To grasp the arbitrary nature of things freed you from laws of necessity. It freed you to reject old men; it prepared you to enter a new society blind to color and class. But as a child of their house I was conscious of certain ligations, bonds of love and indemnity exerting a strong gravitational pull. I fantasized, hesitated, and plotted, but balked at the genuine leap. Sooner or later that moment would come. It was never a question of repudiating my parents but establishing cognitive distance.

I couldn’t have guessed how long that would take. I had no idea that centuries shape the most casual of human relations. Ten generations separated me from Jan de Decker. Years would pass before I’d read that name in a dusty tome at the college library—see its shameful mention in a half-page footnote. My name. I would understand then that I’d spent my life in houses he continued to haunt.

 

William Merrill Decker is an English professor at Oklahoma State University. This excerpt from Kodak Elegy: A Cold War Childhood, is reprinted here with permission from Syracuse University Press. 

Published March 2013