My elder son tells me he wants adventure. Something memorable. Historic. Being born in the privateer age would have been nice. He worries there are no adventures left.
I tell both my sons to notice what is going on and to remember. It is a historic age, of scientific discoveries, national division, political extremes, pandemic, and a devastated economy. The feeling of disaster has been on us a while, so I have been saying similar things to them for a while, but now here it actually is.
The young do not often have the context, through personal experience or education, to understand what they are seeing, so they worry they are missing it. Nothing remains in my personal memory of LBJ, but that was because I had no context. I remember everything that mattered to me, including individual snowmen, an earthquake, and my sister still living at home. There is a little of Nixon, but much more of friends and cousins, Apollo 11 on a neighbor’s TV, and the Scholastic Book Club. President Ford was Chevy Chase, as far as I was concerned watching Saturday Night Live with my brother-in-law and his best friend, feeling grown-up at getting invited to see late-night TV, and discovering at the same time it was commentary on the adult world. SNL led me to Python, the Goonies, Peter Sellers, National Lampoon, and writers such as Vonnegut. I had one of the first Nixon masks, which was a big hit.
Carter I do remember, from TV, along with footage of the gas crisis in ’79 (the toilet-paper shortage of its day). Within a couple of years I was my elder son’s age and had graduated high school. My memories begin to take a new cast, inflected with independence and personal relevance. My awareness of the Iranian hostage crisis came mostly from listening to “Night Stalker” chopper pilots at the 101st Airborne, who were sharply critical of the failed rescue attempt, and whose unit, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, had been formed as a result.
I do not remember much about previous public health scares either, but there has not been one like this since I was born. I can see where young people might think the lockdown, which has stripped them of social gatherings and celebrations, has been a big blank, punctuated by memes. There are the same four walls and routines, though the routines are skewed and curtailed. But memories end up being rich, I find, in every age; we only think we have missed out.
This is an important time, worth bearing witness. I try to memorize what it is like myself, as I work, worry, scan social media, make phone calls to check in with people, and marvel at a nation in freefall. It has been important to me, and gratifying, that my sons and I have had even longer talks than usual, now that life has been reduced to only what we need. I think we are really getting somewhere on fixing the problems of the world.
My elder son’s high-school graduation was historic, I assure him, because he did not go. There has not been one like it, maybe for a century. He posed for photos at home, wearing a gas mask from one of my writing trips, which he uses to clean the cat box. It is a kind of satire, and he is making his own meaning. These are weird days but some of the memorable days, I tell him. I love you. We are healthy. Remember that.