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Richard Schickel's childhood in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, was never so glamorous, but in Good Morning, Mr. Zip Zip Zip, he recalls the many movies written by the soon-to-be-blacklisted that offered romanticized visions of American and Russian societies during the Second World War. "You can't really tell the difference between those written by Communists and those written by liberals," Schickel notes. "All you can say of this lot is that if their political sins were minimal, their rhetorical ones were heinous."
Hollywood in the fifties was filled with sinners: as Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair recount in The Bad and the Beautiful, those in the entertainment industry survived everything from sex scandals to murder cases. Yet some, like the screenwriter Alvah Bessie, never recovered from political persecution: "People say it's now pretty fashionable to say you were blacklisted, but if that's fashionable, I haven't gotten any offers from Hollywood yet,"he told an interviewer in 1977.(Andrea Thompson)
WE LIVED, during the war (and for many years thereafter) in a place called Wauwatosa.
Wauwatosa. Something inescapably comic in that soft tumble of vowels. But it was a serious place: a suburb of Milwaukee where many of the people who soberly, responsibly tended the larger city's business lived.
The name is a corruption of a word borrowed from some local Indian dialect. I don't know its literal meaning. In high school the joke was that it meant "strong middle class with delusions of grandeur." Delusions of stability would be more like it-a dream of seamless continuity between past, present, and future. Writing brilliantly about another kind of suburb-newer, rawer, Californian-D. J. Waldie observed, "The necessary illusion is predictability."
In our case this was based in part on the fact that, unlike other suburbs, this little city had not been created whole cloth out of some developer's dream. It had a history of organic growth that appeared to be logically extensible into the future. It had been founded as a rural trading center in the nineteenth century. Whittaker Chambers's grandmother was born there in its early days-to my mind one of the most interesting facts about Wauwatosa. Its whole point was not to produce, or have any truck with, characters like Whittaker Chambers, to pretend that impassioned figures of his sort-tortured souls desperately certain that history was a tragic drama-did not exist. "Well, he certainly didn't get that from his grandmother," people would have said had they known of his roots.
Eventually the little city grew to a point at which it and Milwaukee shared a border-the big city ended on the east side of Sixtieth Street, the smaller one on its west side. Along this street (and on other major thoroughfares leading in and out of it) the town had erected signboards. They were fashioned of metal and hung from weathered wooden posts. The top was a cutout silhouette of little trees and houses. Below them you were welcomed with these words:
After which the current population (around 25,000 in those days) was noted. All those boasts were as reliable as the census figures that followed.
IT WAS NEVER explained to me why my mother and father decided to move to Wauwatosa from Milwaukee's East Side in 1937 or '38. It was one of those matters that people in those days did not feel a need to discuss with their children.
I'm sure "Good Schools" had a lot to do with it, since I was arriving at kindergarten age. And "Artesian Water" was not to be entirely overlooked. Milwaukee's drinking water, drawn from Lake Michigan, had to be treated chemically and tasted distinctly unfresh. But it was, I think, that "City of Homes" slogan that sealed their bargain.
For this was a town that believed in free-standing dwellings and serious zoning. Our house was a swollen, yellow stucco bungalow, more spacious than it looked from the outside. It had a second floor we never knew quite what to do with and a garage under the house, which kept the car warm on cold winter nights, though the extra long curve of the driveway required to reach it demanded prodigies of shoveling in a blizzard's aftermath.
Our address was 1721 North 68th Street. This was in the historic heart of the town, a grid of streets running five long blocks north and south, something like twenty blocks east and west, all of them richly canopied by elms and maples. The houses, set well back from the street, seemed as deeply rooted as the trees. They were the products, I suppose, of the first intensive wave of suburban building that began around the turn of the century, predominantly colonial in design, generously proportioned, often with a side porch or sunroom added.
These were sober houses, not built to create an overwhelming first impression but to endure. The last time I looked, in the fall of 2001, when I returned for my fiftieth high school reunion, they were all still there. There were other districts in town, of course, one or two richer than ours, one or two poorer. We were right in the middle, socially as well as geographically, of this middle-class community.
OUR TOWN'S CENTER was called "The Village." It nestled in a curve of the Menominee River, where several streets, running on downhill diagonals, came together near the railroad station. The weekly newspaper's office was there, also the volunteer fire department (which sounded a noon whistle every workday, a shriek that carried for miles) and a police station (at my grandfather's urging, the chief, a Masonic lodge brother, once opened his coat to reveal his holstered gun).
The major building, located on a triangular plot where all the streets converged, was an old-fashioned dry goods emporium, dark and musty. It was called Lefeber's. Its toy department, in the basement, was nearly always closed-a slat with a bit of mournful black oilcloth tacked to it barring your way. If you wanted to examine its rather good stock of lead soldiers, you had to apply to a clerk, usually a middle-aged spinsterish woman, who would grudgingly precede you down the stairs, flip on the light switches, and impatiently await your selection. On the store's second floor the city rented a large room where the town council met.
Among The Village's other shops were a dime store, a hardware store, two drugstores, each with a marble soda counter, and a shoe store with an x-ray fitter, in which you could observe your own wiggling toe bones as you tried on your new footwear while your mother and the salesman peered through other viewers, judging the fit. Everyone was unaware of the carcinogenic danger to which they were being exposed.
All these buildings were flat-faced and functional. But as you climbed the hill you passed the little-used bandstand; St. Bernard's, the Catholic grade school; and the Underwood Hotel, where my grandparents lived, and came, three blocks from Lefeber's, to the library. It stood on another triangular plot, a stone building, steeply eaved, whimsical in design-like a fairytale building, I thought. It had a children's alcove with a long cushioned seat beneath a large stained-glass window. My mother would take me there on rainy summer afternoons when I was small, and I would spend a sweet hour in that hushed, cozy place, leafing through the picture books, trying to puzzle out the few words they contained.
Later the library, which was just six blocks from our house, was the savior of many a restless summer day. It could always be relied on for the latest from F. Van Wyck Mason, a now forgotten fictioneer, who wrote a series of spy novels featuring a James Bond precursor called Colonel North as well as seafaring historical novels that seemed to me racy-lots of girls in piratical jeopardy. The library also offered the collected works of P. G. Wodehouse, which somehow made me laugh out loud despite the fact that I knew nothing of the lost Edwardian world he was satirizing.
ABOUT THE VILLAGE there was something of a country town improbably clinging to life in the midst of a heavily industrialized metropolis. It wasn't self-consciously quaint; preservationism had not yet been invented. Neither did it exert quite the centrifugal force of a main street in a rural county seat; downtown Milwaukee was too near. But it hinted at something about the character of our community-a sort of unexamined traditionalism, a passive but weighty resistance to change.
Sinclair Lewis just two decades earlier had described an old-fashioned American main street as "the climax of civilization," and something of that sense of unimprovable completion had now passed to suburbs like ours.
Sober civic-mindedness was a shared value-men who wished the community's respect were expected to join the service clubs, teach Sunday school, participate in organizations like the PTA. Women were supposed to be Cub Scout den mothers and run white elephant sales at the church.
Every six weeks on winter Saturday nights there was "Minuet." This was a dancing club that met at the Women's Club ballroom, the men in tuxes, the women in long dresses. There were always cocktail parties before the dance. On Sunday morning my father was sometimes hung over, and there was talk of others observed "feeling no pain." Liquor excused the flirtatiousness of these occasions, observable (if not nameable) by me when my parents hosted one of the predance parties. Everyone was just a little more sparkly than usual.
Wauwatosa voted Republican overwhelmingly. In 1940, in a straw vote in my classroom, only three or four of us raised our hands for Roosevelt. Four years later I raised a solitary hand for Norman Thomas and was greeted with cries of outrage-justifiably so, since it was a reaction I was seeking, not a principle I was advancing.
Everyone went to church dutifully-the Protestant denominations mainly, though there was a substantial Catholic minority. There were to my knowledge only two Jewish families in town: the Feldmans, who ran a somewhat deracinated delicatessen where we bought cold cuts and rye bread for our Saturday soup and sandwich dinners; and the Grosses, who were rumored to have a background in raffish show business, though no one ever discovered its details. They possessed the town's only private swimming pool and kept rather to themselves.
These families were tolerated but not embraced. I went to school with children from both of them and often met Larry Gross-a soft-spoken, self-contained boy-on the way to school and walked with him. But I was only rarely invited to his home, and vice versa.
Needless to say, there were no black residents. In fact, there was an ordinance on the books that prohibited blacks from being on our streets after 10 p.m. Most people did not know of this law. It came to light sometime in the fifties when a black man, a chef in a local restaurant, was arrested for breaking it as he waited for a streetcar to take him home after work. A scandal arose, and the law was rescinded. But I cannot honestly say that in the thirties or forties, had we known of this ordinance, we would have thought it untoward.
I cannot say, either, that my parents were not in some corner of their souls attracted to living in this essentially WASP enclave, so free of disturbing othernesses. They had their prejudices. Everyone I encountered growing up did. These were not virulent. They were expressed as muttered distrust, mild patronization. But never, of course, to anyone's face. That would have been a violation of the politesse on which the town relied for its smooth functioning.
IT WAS THE SAME with money. Those who had it were expected not to flaunt it. Of those who seemed to be doing well, we said only, "They're comfortable." It was a nice, vague, all-encompassing term that embraced virtually everyone we knew, and people worked hard to attain and maintain that state of things.
In the winter you would start clearing your sidewalk as soon as the snow stopped falling. In the spring the bare patches in the lawns were always reseeded as soon as the threat of freezing was over. In the summer the grass was cut and watered once a week. In the autumn the leaves were raked into neat piles on the same schedule.
You were allowed to jump into the leaves if you promised not to scatter them. Eventually they would be gathered in bushel baskets for collection by the trash men. But sometimes they would be burned. No reason not to; in those days the greenhouse effect was, like x-ray shoe fitters, one of a thousand perils as yet unknown. We were entirely free to enjoy the minor drama of the flame struggling to catch in leaves that were often wet, the cloud of gray smoke curling upward, your father warning you to stay a safe distance upwind.
There was something ritualistic about all the puttering, tidying, sprucing-up chores with which little boys were encouraged to assist (we were all equipped with child-sized rakes and shovels). They were repayment on the unspoken obligation we owed to the masculine enigma. Pestering, yet quickly bored, we were learning the tricks of the grown-up trade, certain deftnesses and patiences that were not taught in books. In the process we were also discovering and paying the interest on the other unspoken debt that could never be fully discharged-the upkeep we owed to the city of homes and the social compact our parents had made with it.
The little city was perhaps less socially homogenous in truth than it is in memory. Just south of our house, where the land sloped down to the river valley, was a working-class district-neat little bungalows in carefully tended yards. North of us were other such areas, while further west were sections of newer homes, spacious enough but not yet fully settled into their landscapes of newly sodded lawns and young trees.
Across the street from us, the Highlands began. These were a set of low hills with curving streets following their contours. Many of the houses there were quite grand, several of them near to showy. There the "rich" (as we judged them to be) lived. It seems to me that the people there were less neighborly and mixed less in the life of the town than others did, which may be, come to think of it, why the Grosses, in their mysterious, faintly glamorous prosperity, abided there.
Whatever he did, Mr. Gross at least did not sell real estate or life insurance, which is what everyone else's father seemed to do. I exaggerate. Those of them who did not work in white collars in Milwaukee's factories were in the professions or had small businesses of their own. But no one was an airline pilot. Or an FBI agent. No one went off to the war, when it came, in some heroic or secretive capacity.
Our mothers, for the most part, did not hold jobs. Mainly they shopped, made dinner, kept house, and tended their children. They were alert to our needs, but-my own nervous mother aside-not oppressive in their concerns. They didn't need to be, for we were entirely unthreatened. There were no bad neighborhoods in Wauwatosa, few latchkey children, and, of course, no drugs and no guns other than hunting weapons, which were handled by adults with a great show of respect.
"Juvenile delinquency" was a postwar concept and concern. I suppose there must have been "dysfunctional" families pretending to function in this benign environment, but divorce and alcoholism were rare. Spousal and child abuse were virtually unheard of.
Virtually. A friend of my mother's, someone with one of those plain, sensible names-Esther or Margaret or Clara-did separate from her husband. Then one night her home was invaded by an unidentified intruder and she was severely beaten.
Excerpted from Good Morning, Mr. Zip Zip Zip by RICHARD SCHICKEL Copyright © 2003 by Richard Schickel
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Indeed, a kind of free-associative force began moving in me. I'd start to write about some incident, and it would trigger memories of something else. And then something more would occur. In a way, that part of making this book was easier for me than most writing is -- and, in some sense, more fun. For my life, growing up in a midwestern suburb during World War II, was untouched by tragedy or high drama. There was a sweetness, even a placidity about it -- now lost to much of America -- that I wanted to recapture.
I also began to see in my restlessness a kid's impatience with what I now see as the illusion of coherence, of predictability, that our parents so firmly (and innocently) pressed upon us. It was my inarticulate suspicion of that too-comfortable vision that made me such a passionate moviegoer at such an early age.
Sure, by their final fade-outs, most movies restored order to the little melodramatic or comic worlds they explored. But before they got there, they often took us on wonderfully improbable rides through dangerously disordered universes. They offered us possibilities of romance and heroism that were unavailable on the clean streets of our little town, unavailable in the repressed (and, in their way, repressive) conversations with our elders. I wanted to recapture the tension between bland reality and the seductive -- if commercialized -- fantasy in Good Morning, Mr. Zip Zip Zip.
But there's another tension in the book -- the most valuable one, I think. It is between the specific memories I conjured up so readily and the material about which, at the time, I hadn't a clue. I'm talking now about all the wartime issues no one -- not our families, not our government, not the mass media -- talked about. Mostly what I'm referring to is death: death on a scale unprecedented in human history, death, particularly, in the form of largely unacknowledged mass murder. I'm talking about the Holocaust, of course, scarcely mentioned by our government or the press at the time but yet known to many members of those elites. But I'm also talking about the rape of Nanking and the razing of Manila (100,000 dead) by the retreating Japanese. I am talking as well of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and of the no less deadly firestorms over Tokyo and Dresden and Hamburg. I am, at the minimum, saying that both sides in that war must share equally in this guilt.
About all this we at the time knew nothing. Death when it appeared in our movies, in all of our wartime fictions, was always heroic and purposeful, never a stupid or wasteful accident. Very often it was not an end but the beginning of a ghostly, everlasting life. As I confronted this genial, lying material with an old man's experience, I was sickened and infuriated by it. The chipper little life I recount in this book, I came to see as I wrote it, was, in the most profound sense, based on a terrible and conscious lie. We were willfully misled by all our official organs and spokesmen, and I needed to talk about that.
I do not say that World War II was unjust. We had to oppose the Holocaust -- though in truth we did almost nothing to bring it to a halt before most of its previously unthinkable horrors were done. We also needed to know, at the time, that that is what we were doing; it does no good to realize, after the fact, that we had more or less accidentally done the right thing.
If my book has any moral weight or lasting value, it lies in the fact that it takes up these questions. If it has any immediate value, appearing as it does when we are about to enter upon another, far less justifiable war, it lies in its insistence on this point: there is, in modern war, no such thing as "collateral" damage. Our bombs are not yet that "smart." They will kill innocents by the thousands. And we will be lied to about those deaths.
I do not wish to participate in that lie. I do not wish my grandchildren to be bent by it as I for a long time was. I hope my book, whatever innocent pleasures it recalls for some readers, will deconstruct our nostalgia, dismantle our complacencies and, to the degree that a mere book can, dismay some of our historical certitudes. Richard Schickel (March 2003)
Posted April 16, 2003
A good book for both film buffs, and people who like coming of age stories. Written well, and informative. The author does a good job of blending memoir and film.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.