Baghdad on the Potomac

It snowed in Southeastern Pennsylvania on January 19 and 20, 1961. A lot. You remember snow.

What we used to get back in the winter days of Global Normal, when the heating season began in Philly on October 15 (our steam heat went on that day in Penn Wynne, PA, courtesy of Lewis C Jones Company, with billowing columns of damp, vaguely musty smelling steam bubbling up through cracks in the pipes and sidewalk joints. Trust me, it was cool. And some sidewalks got automatic snow removal. Called steam melting. (That would have been along Hampstead Road.) I remember a lot because, in the prior fall, my family had moved from the mean streets of West and South Philly to the meaner ones of Lower Merion about 6 months earlier. But that’s for another post.

Anyway, in those gelid winters of the 60s and 70s, there were “snow days.” Usually 5 or 6 inches was enough to get your public or parochial school shut down for the day in the Philly suburbs. Even in high school–especially then, when we had genuinely snowy stretches–you could count on sleeping in, going sledding, and watching your three channels of black and white. Where, indeed, are the snows of yesteryear? More fake news, I guess, but I didn’t imagine shovelling it.

In any event, I was home on January 20, 1961. I sat on a braided rug in the mostly empty living room of my parents’ modest suburban Meloney and McWilliams cottage style twin home. By my reckoning, I think they were the fourth owners since the place had gone up in the 1910s We had a small black and white console model tv that sat in an alcove on an inexpensive metal frame. It was a little chilly, but I didn’t care. I was home. And I was watching the inauguration of the President of the United States on live television. I had never done that before. I was ten years old. It seems like yesterday, but it was 60 years ago.

Up on the screen in front of the Capitol was my hero. You can laugh all you want, but I was a ten-year old Catholic kid who was watching the inauguration of the first Roman Catholic President. I had seen John Kennedy in person on the steps of the Upper Darby City hall on a rainy afternoon a few months earlier with my grandmother. Kennedy, I recall, had shockingly red hair. He was a good-looking guy, a war hero, and, most of all, young. To my kid self, the product of a working class immigrant family, Kennedy said all the right things. I had watched him debate Richard Nixon on the same television. He was as articulate and dynamic as Nixon was dreary and uninspiring. Yup. I was a Democrat. And I had been delighted by Kennedy’s win. I remember the morning after election night when Chet Huntley said it was all over on a live NBC broadcast. That had been a first for me too. I remembered events of Eisenhower’s presidency, but Ike was impossibly old and he seemed to spend a lot of time at Burning Tree Golf Club. Or so I thought. Worse, he had let America fall behind the Soviet Union. In like everything, but especially missiles. Yeah, and in something called Quemoy and Matsu. Who knew, right? Must have been bad.

There had been a short circuit in the podium where Kennedy was going to speak, and a brief burst of smoke. But no big deal. As far as Kennedy was concerned, there was no big deal. Hey, he had single handedly saved one of his crew from PT 109, right? By swimming to some island in some place called the Solomon Islands, I thought. You really think a fire, or, for that matter, snow and cold was gonna stop President Kennedy? He took the oath of office in a suit jacket while everybody else had top coats, top hats, and frozen breath. He was tough. And it was a good thing. Because the Cold War was as real as the snow on the ground in DC. And then there was The Speech.

Oh, yeah, The Speech. Now everybody knows what Kennedy said (or used to, when we actually had to memorize such stuff in history classes), so I won’t presume to repeat it. There was high drama, Bostonish sounding cadences, and a lot of challenges. I thought I was one of the New Generation to whom the torch had been passed. I had no clue, of course, but bearing any burden and fighting any foe (read them lousy Russians) sounded good to me. Stuff was gonna happen, good stuff. And like any good immigrant Catholic kid, I wanted a piece of the action. Even at the age of ten. The future had arrived.

Now fast forward six decades. I’m pretty sure I’m gonna watch Joe Biden’ s inauguration, but with a radically different set of expectations. That’s partly because I ain’t ten years old any more; because Mr Kennedy, he dead; and so pretty much is the world that he ushered in. And, hey, we won the Cold War. Great, right? Except today I sit here and wonder if we lost our souls in the process. American “can do”? Can do what? Screw up? Vietnam, the Middle East, the War on Poverty, Katrina, the Fierce Urgency of Now? Make America Great Again, right. Oh. My. God.

I have to pinch myself to remember that my parents were registered Republicans. You could be decent and a Republican then. Now the South Philly family was all in with FDR, because, as my grandfather explained to me, the Democrats were for the workin’ man, and the Republicans, ugh, those were the stiffs you went on strike AGAINST. My Mom had been a Republican to get a City Hall job back in the days when Philadelphia had a Republican Mayor ( Samuels was his name, I think, before Joe Clark). My Dad, I don’t know. We didn’t fight about politics until Vietnam. And I never asked, and didn’t care. Families didn’t fight over politics. We fought over, what, cigarette brands? Not even that. Maybe over Ocean City versus Wildwood. Or Maris versus Mantle. We didn’t fight over politics. Especially when Kennedy came along. Even if my Dad voted for Nixon. Which I never knew then. I didn’t like Nixon, but I didn’t think he was Satan.

Do you know what it is to be really sick to your stomach? How about living in the one state (guess) where the Attorney General (himself a wannabee felon on the lam) refused to sign off on a letter (endorsed by 49 others) that condemned the “insurrection” that he (Ken Paxton) had personally egged on with his criminal patron, Donald Trump? How about training, in part, as a professional historian only to conclude that Abraham Lincoln had gotten things dead wrong in 1861? That he should have let the South secede as some then urged and then let the British worry about slavery. Because that way the United States would’ve been rid of this racist, reactionary cancer we can never quite excise. And, as if to make the irony more sickening, has once again forced troops into the United States Capitol for the first time since the Civil War, to make sure the “rebels” don’t string up Mike Pence or Nancy Pelosi? While we get to impeach Agent Orange AGAIN. Hell, Jeff Davis will probably end up having a better historical reputation than Trump. And deservedly so. Davis at least fought for the United States in the Mexican War. A sense of duty that mafioso in the White House would never understand. He is, after all, not a loser. He had medical issues.

The other day, my doctor told me, if I laid off the bean burgers, that I would probably live to a ripe old age. I should be delighted, right? I’ll get more than the Biblical Threescore and Ten. You know what’s sad? I don’t know if I care to stick around that long. I’m not ten years old any longer, and somehow, the future, such as it is, doesn’t seem particularly appealing. Maybe Joe can pull a rabbit out of his hat and start turning things around. Wanna bet the gun nuts in the Republican Party won’t shoot the rabbit for dinner, or even just for the sheer Hell of it? I wouldn’t, if I were you. Maybe you can’t fix stupid, but you can’t fix mean, constipated and ugly either.

PS I misspelled Pence the first time around. Spelling is no longer my strong point.

Published by RJS El Tejano

I sarcastically call myself El Tejano because I'm from Philadelphia and live in South Texas. Not a great fit, but sometimes, economists notwithstanding, you don't get to choose. My passions are jazz, Mexican history and economics. Go figure

4 thoughts on “Baghdad on the Potomac

  1. I remember going to hear Kennedy speak to a full house in Norristown at a HS football stadium in Fall, 1960. I was too young to appreciate the moment but it is still a strong memory. I was more impressed with the black Cadillac he drove up in than with him or his speech but understood my two aunts who took me were all in on the man. They would have been groupies if they could. I was a clueless 8 year old.

    You are right about it being a different time. There were many differences between then and now but a big one was civility in government.

    Now we know that the civility was a veneer. It covered over deep differences, divides that were just never discussed, at least in white circles. The South was the South. Racism was not even a word to use to describe the ethos of a Strom Thurmond. It was just understood that South Carolina would be as it was and Thurmond was their honored Senator.

    Entrenched racism was a time bomb that would take more than half a century to fully express itself as the jolt to our body politic we are now facing. Who would have thought that a major agent of the unleashing would be a holder of the same office as Kennedy and who would end up being his spiritual antithesis (except when it came to women)?

    There is a lot of work to do. There are good people committed to doing it. It’s just a good thing Texas wasn’t the state that Trump was looking to get 12,000 extra votes. Paxton would have found them. We are expecting his pardon to come through in the next few days, no?

    Liked by 1 person

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