Hello, Seattle, 43 Years Ago


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So I’ve been watching Mad Men fitfully for a couple years on Netflix, haven’t pushed into the last half of the last season just yet.

It beguiles and intrigues me because it’s set in the 1955-1965 time when my parents were reaching the apex of their youth and surfing, however timidly, the incredible surge of the post-war economy and culture.  Of course, there’s the costumes and props and maddening telephone technology in Mad Men that resonate, but also wisps of the urgent issues of the day, and how the writers ingeniously filtered them through office culture.

I worked at summer jobs at my dad’s manufacturing plant ( they made glass for General Motors) in the late 60s, and, although we weren’t working in a Manhattan high-rise, we were still firmly attached to the skeleton  that underlay the social and professional fabric of the country, so in so many ways my dad’s office in middle America was just a door or two away from Don Draper’s.

43 years ago, perhaps to the day, (I’ll close this loop in a moment), Mrs. Perils and I returned to our post-college digs in Bowling Green, Ohio, from a breathtaking trip to Seattle, took a look in the mirror, and decided that we were going to be those guys that, as Huck Finn said, lit out for the territory.  We hitched a 4×8 U-Haul to my ‘67 Pontiac Tempest and headed for Seattle.

In the Mad Men episode I just watched, Don has just walked out of a meeting in Manhattan and begun driving west, to a future as uncertain as we faced in 1974.  Somewhere around Cleveland, the ghost of Bert Cooper appears in the passenger seat and recites Kerouac: “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”

The question, of course, is existential and not merely geographical.  It was sufficiently laden with emotion in the Mad Men plot, but - and I’m not a crier - I found myself suddenly weeping (in a manly way), a late-summer squall exposing long-forgotten topology.  Where was I (we) going back in October, 1974, taking leave of family we knew would feel our absence and (probably) question our choice?  By all measures, we’ve had a wonderful life, and connected deeply with our families, but at the time it didn’t seem so certain.

I think “Whither goest thou” is a trenchant question for life’s next adventure.  And this car, this formerly shiny car, nonetheless seems up for another cycle around the odometer.

3 Comments

  1. This is such a beautiful post. “Whither goest thou…” — I so love contemplating that. Two of my three siblings and I took that drive in 1970 from New Jersey to California. We were so young, my twin and I had just graduated from high school and my sister would just be starting her senior year in California. Were we the last generation of uprooted dreamers, I wonder? Do young people still embark on such life changing journeys that begin, Whither goest thou?

    You make me want to watch Mad Men again!

  2. Phil:

    Thanks, Robin. I think young people will always “light out for the territory”, it’s just that their concept of “territory” is so greatly expanded. While to us, even 150 years ago after Huck, the the Golden West was still The Undiscovered, kids now backpack to Thailand, Vietnam, India, in search of..probably the same things we were searching for: an identity uniquely ours, in a place where we could nurture it unfettered by inherited expectations.

  3. I was thinking about my father’s grandparents who left Hungary in the late 1800s and came to America. I was thinking about my mother’s parents who left Leipzig, Germany in 1921 and came to America. I was thinking about the dust bowl era and the journey across the plains to the west. I was wondering if the generation of young people today have horizons I don’t see, a yearning for a new life and a place to plant their dreams. The planet is over-populated, and for some reason “Whither goest though?” made me take a journey of lament about the future.

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