My Family: “As Far as Our Old Man Got” and The Death of the American Dream

Do you remember the old Billy Joel song where he said “everyone could hope to make it as far as his old man got.”

That is how most Americans have historically grown-up believing that each generation would do better than the past and that was the American Dream. In the Post WWII era the veterans of the war went to college by the millions thanks to the GI bill and entered white-collar America in the fifties and led to the suburban housing boom. Most of these GI’s came from poor or blue-collar families and far exceeded the dreams of their parents who reared them during the Great Depression.

Those GIs who didn’t go to college really didn’t sweat it that much because they came home to union skilled trade, manufacturing, transportation, and government jobs. Without a college education, and many without even a high school diploma, they were able to get jobs that allowed them to live comfortable middle-class lifestyles for their entire lives. My grandfather was one of those men; he was a marine in WWII and fought in the Pacific theatre. He only had a grade school education and was one of 14 children his mother had (several of them died during birth) and grew-up poor during the Depression years. After coming back from Vietnam he worked as a taxi driver, a laborer and at a dairy before he ended up landing good union jobs at factories as a pipefitter that lasted for the rest of his career until he had a heart attack. A man who grew-up poor to a laborer and homemaker; my grandfather was able to buy decent homes, decent cars and provide good health care to his children and had a reasonable pension and Social Security waiting on him upon retirement. He owed much of his relative success to his hard work-ethic and honesty, but a lot of it can be owed to the times he lived in and the gains of the labor movement by the time he joined the unionized workforce. Another big factor was that he got married young at the age of 21 to my grandmother, who was 18 at the time, and they worked side by side and in harmony over the years to achieve their common goals. His motto was always simple; hard work, family and patriotism. The sixties didn’t happen as far as he was concerned and he never broke free of the cultural norms that he grew-up with or attempted to expand his horizons. Going out for my grandfather is a night at the horse races and hitting the McDonalds drive-thru on the way home and picking up enough for everyone and getting home in time to watch the baseball game or the boxing matches.

Then the next generation came along. Now I don’t want to get in that many details but let’s just say that our family’s boomer generation hasn’t been as successful as the WWII generation. The three children that my grandparents had, two boys and a girl, all came of age in the 1960’s and early seventies.

My uncle went to Vietnam after graduating from high school. Unlike my grandfather who was in the Battle of Okinawa and finished the war in Japan and China in a military that was enjoying the thrills of a historic victory. Americans believed in the war on fascism and as the GI’s in Europe battled Hitler, the GI’s in Asia sought to avenge the attack on Pearl Harbor from the Japanese. Ask any sensible Chinese, Korean or Filipino and they will tell you they thank God for the American involvement in the Pacific theatre. History will record their battles against the Japanese as just as the people of the time recognized it as just.

Vietnam is an entirely different story. America didn’t support Vietnam because any logical person knew at the time that it was an unjust war and attack on the people of Vietnam. Half of the soldiers in Vietnam didn’t agree with the war; but were too poor to get college deferments. Vietnam was a poor-mans war; and my uncle didn’t have enough money to not go so he went. The children of the elite marched in Berkeley and Manhattan while the children of the poor died and were permanently scarred in Vietnam.

Part of my uncles reasoning for wanting to go to the war (even though there really wasn’t much of a choice) was also probably the desire to do what his old man did. The dads of his buddies were all looked at as heroes and his generation wanted to be heroes too even if they didn’t have a heroic endeavor. His experience in Vietnam was poor, something he never liked to talk about. The only thing that was generally known in the family was that he flew on helicopters that picked up the wounded and dead (which is a gruesome job) and that he had fell in love with a Vietnamese girl that he was unable to take home although he desperately wanted to.

The only conversation with my uncle about the war I ever had is when I asked him if a lot of the soldiers in Vietnam used drugs, before he could answer my grandmother yelled out “no they didn’t”; but my uncle was honest and said “ Are you nuts? Almost all of the guys used drugs at one time or another.”

My uncle Jimmy never got married, never had children, never bought a house, was in constant debt, battled with addictions and died of a heart attack before the age of fifty. The American Dream never reached him.

My aunt I will not discuss that much, I guess because my writing is more male-centric because I think I have a better understanding of the trials and tribulations of the male. I will say though that my aunt is divorced, in dire financial straits, has one child, and also appears not to be doing so hot in the American Dream category after being forced to enter the entry-level job market at the age of fifty in order to struggle to keep her home.

Then comes my father. I think he grew-up in an idealized vision of America and that was in his mind as he went to his youth. He soon discovered that the America he grew-up being taught to love was unraveling and he rebelled against the rebels and became somewhat of a reactionary and a life-long anti-intellectual. While millions were protesting the Vietnam War my father actually tried to volunteer for the war (but my grandmother vetoed that idea after threatening the recruiter with a baseball bat) and he passively fought on the other side of his generation during the culture wars.

With no war to go to, and without completing his college studies, my father had three children with my mother before age 22 and by 24 he was divorced and had custody of three children. He had a good union job as a crane-operator before getting laid of and then struggled for years before getting a job as an autoworker with the help of my grandfather. We had lean years before that but that good union job and benefits led to a better life for him and his children. Remarrying once more in my childhood my father became a Evangelical Christian and for several years I was raised strictly in that tradition ( and am left with a taste so bitter from the Evangelicals that I will never be able to get rid of the foul taste). Now he had good trait and bad traits as a father, but that is not the point of this story, the question is did he get as far as his old man got? Well, every home he bought he lost due to lack of payments, he is twice-divorced, had to take an early medical retirement in his fifties, and generally led an unfulfilled life in which he dealt with problems of anger and briefly with other problems and at this age he has a less than desirable relationship with his three children and grand-children (although he is trying and I cant knock him for that). However, contrast that with my grandparents who raised their children, grand-children and are now taking on the grandparent role to their great-grandchildren and are dearly loved by all. It can be safely said that my father didn’t get as far as his old man got.

The next generation came with my sisters and I. Briefly I will tell you my older twin-sisters are doing relatively well although one is having sever financial problems and is married to a guy who makes Toby Keith look like Saul Bellow.

Now to me; the male who was supposed to get as far as his old man got ( and being the son of a man who didn’t get as far as his old man, could I make the comeback for the team?). Well, I began getting in legal-trouble at age fourteen, am a high school dropout, convicted felon who spent time in federal prison, the father of a child born out of wedlock, flat-broke with literally no chance of buying a home and I cant see a union job in site. I haven’t gotten as far as my old man and he didn’t get as far as his old man.

I am poorer than the previous generations and have no health-care but am more educated (not in the traditional sense). I have traveled the world, can speak other languages, am a writer, and read and speak on topics my father and grandfather have never heard of. The places I have been and the things I have seen they can never imagine and for all practical purposes we are living on separate planets. The only thing that binds the three-generations is a love of sports. Seldom have I done anything they can relate to; besides my involvement with Democratic political campaigns which a Democratic family can understand. They were passive observers to most things; I am an active participant in life and the social, cultural and political debates of our times.

Today there is no American Dream, it is a thing of the past. Not only am I not as far as my father and grandfather but the vast majority of people I know; from black to white, educated to non-educated, and rich to poor have not made it as far finically as their fathers. What many of us share in common though is that we are worldlier than the previous generations and are more engaged in society. So we may not be doing the things that can earn us the money they made; but we are doing the things that will make us happier than they ever were. Many of our fathers, like mine, hated their jobs and dreaded going to work everyday; that is not the case with me.

This was inspired by a guy I had in my cab tonight. He told me that both of his uncles retired from the cab company that I drive for in the 1980’s and that they are both receiving $2,000 a month pensions. Today drivers get no pension, health-care or any kind of pension whatsoever. In my profession we have taken a giant step-backwards. Of course we also live in a time when people are duped into voting against their own economic interests and many workers are so brainwashed by talk-radio that they don’t even know what is good for them.

I looked back at him as a dropped him off in a working-class neighborhood in North St. Louis (Baden) and said “man, we have it worse than our fathers did, don’t you think?”

“I know we have it worse than our fathers did.” He responded.

The modern economy today is geared for the corporate benefit and the interests of the worker have to be laid aside in the era of globalization. This globalized economy will mean that many in America will have unimaginable wealth; while others will live in third-world poverty in the US and there will be nothing in between as the jobs that used to sustain a middle-class lifestyle will no longer be in America.

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4 thoughts on “My Family: “As Far as Our Old Man Got” and The Death of the American Dream

  1. A good post. Yes, we may not have reached as far as our parents’ generation materially, but that’s not all entirely our generation’s fault, as you noted. The American cost of living has gone up so high, it’s difficult for most any person to make ends meet. The rest of the world, of course, is not necessarily like that. A few years ago, I lived for a year in Korea. Even though I was making much less money there than I had in the US, I actually saved more money there than I ever had in America. Go figure. While I’ve learned to live on a lower income, I’m waiting for the real wailing and gnashing of teeth in the US when China and India get their economies fully productive and integrated into the world economy. The American cost of living (with attendant wages) will go down then for sure.

    In the meantime, I wonder about you.
    *You* are obviously bright and literate, and while you may not have the educational credentials (and I know the felony won’t help any), I’m sure you have the street smarts. From your writing, I see a lot of potential in you. You could easily outdistance your father and grandfather, if that’s your worry.

  2. There is an “American Dream” but the people included are just the elite. I come from a pretty similar background from you. But it is clear that we are, as a nation, looking at the first generation that will NOT do as well as their parents.

    My father got a Masters, but the rest of us are either still working on our degrees, or just got them, and we are in our thirties.

    Education at home isnt a guarantee of a happy home life. I left at age 16 due to alcohol and physical abuse and had to make my way from there.

    America has become a place where you look out for your interests and those of the people directly around you. I saw a report recently that said that the chances of the children of people who earn under $90,000 a year going to college is very slim.

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