The Class of '43 Is Puzzled - Page 2
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The next morning there were two memorial services, one for the classmates who had died and another for Senator Kennedy. This last was a little much for somebody, who said, "Considering Bobby was neither a classmate nor a Republican I think they could have disposed of him by tucking him into a prayer. I've spent more time in church this morning than I have in ten years."
After the memorializing there were drinks and luncheon in the residential houses (dorms). Each classmate went back to the house where he had lived as an undergraduate. John Finley of Eliot House was the only master still presiding who had been there in the classmates' time. On Thursday Harvard would give him an honorary degree and let him retire, but on Monday he made a good-bye speech to his now middle-aged boys. They loved it, particularly his saying the people in SDS are "moral jocks."
Norman Mailer showed up at Dunster House to the surprise of everybody who thought the 25th would be beneath him, and he behaved himself to the disappointment of everybody, who hoped he'd do something outrageous. Nobody else in the class seemed able to.
The class of '43 wasn't running the course that way. They were subdued. "The central question is not what's happening to the world or where the country's going, but what's happening to our children," explained Paul Sheeline, senior vice president of Inter-Continental Hotels. He was having a preluncheon drink at Winthrop House, and there was nothing about this businessman to make you think of a guy running around under a paper hat blowing a kazoo. "Why are our children drifting away from us? That's the question that absorbs us."
Another man in the room, the owner of a chain of retail stores, spoke with depression about his boy who'd been thrown out of a good Midwestern state university because he had stopped working after getting into the drug bag. It was a baffling thing for him and the others, how their children had slid away into passions and concerns that their parents couldn't share. The parents had an air of suspicion about them, a mistrust of their children.
The class of '43 is part of the age group that marched back from the war to the suburbs. This was the do-it-yourself gang, the child-centered, family-oriented bunch who dominated the public awareness of the fifties. They may never have been as numerous as the people who built the shopping centers for them supposed, but for years the noise of the American night was them en famille, consuming barbecue and beer in their backyards. Before them, who'd really worried about crabgrass? They were the ones who turned away from the paramilitary Boy Scouts for the Little League, because the whole family could participate, and then read worrisome articles in the Sunday supplements accusing them of being overly competitive.
As a generation they have been accused of being apathetic and acquisitive, people who struck a devil's bargain with their government, by which, in return for full employment and a little domestic turf, they would occupy themselves with car payments and question neither the bomb-builders nor the bomb-droppers in the recurring anti-Communist wars. Plastic people is what many of their children call them, but of course the accusations aren't fair. The classmates grew up in the narrow, insecure decade of the Great Depression.
The pulling away of the fat, upper-middle-class margin marred these men for grand hopes and wide endeavors. Childhood and youth were lessons in scheming in how to get it back or keep it. The war taught them how a small rock can provide a man with enough protection to live. It was not a beginning to encourage taking long-odds risks. "I am very cautious, and today we're becoming more unsure," Carlton Burr, a classmate who runs a small boat business on Cape Cod, remarked during the preluncheon talk in Winthrop lounge. "I've always felt that what's wrong with the world is that people don't care about their families."
he Chief Marshal of the 25th Reunion Class lived at Winthrop as an undergraduate, so he was in the lounge too. The Chief Marshal is elected by his classmates; on Commencement Day he gets to wear a top hat and carry a gold-tipped baton while leading the returning alumni in both the morning and afternoon procession. This year's marshal, John Richardson, Jr., fit the feeling the classmates as a group conveyed—good prep school (Noble & Greenough), varsity oarsman, diploma cum laude, good war record (parachute drop behind German lines), Harvard Law, a job in John Foster Dulles' law firm, worked for Eisenhower against Taft, the head of Radio Free Europe (1961-1968), and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Mount Vernon NAACP.
In the class report there are two pictures of him, one contemporary, one taken in 1943. He had more hair then, but he's kept his playing weight. His conversation comes in words spoken with a high order of cuteness, sometimes called discretion; he represents the responsibility—cold war abroad but no witch-hunting at home, Eisenhower taken over Taft, the corporate amalgam, team play against the dying virtuosity of Taft's last-century liberal mania. "We were all thrown into a war that was relatively easy for us to participate in; we didn't have the doubts and hesitations that some of this generation does," he said, nonvindictive, cautious, for fair play, free speech, and let's not judge too precipitously.
If the room hadn't been filled with Harvard men and their wives and mothers, it might have gotten rude; it almost did anyway. Harvard had supplied two graduating seniors to talk to the classmates, and in their polite way they shoved it up old E.D.P. Kilroy III.
The classmate chairing the meeting introduced the first speaker, Winthrop House's new master, "Dr. Dana Farnsworth, who will give us some advice on sex education and the handling of these matters." The master of Winthrop House is a psychiatrist and a member of a panel of distinguished outside academics invited in to investigate the insurrection at Columbia last spring. He wasn't going to save anybody's virgin daughters and simply said, "Most of the people you deplore are your own kids. We here at Harvard appreciate your concern, but it's very difficult for us to do for 4600 boys what two parents can't do for one." He smiled as he talked, giving them lots of strokes while he tried to translate where the class of '68's head was at in words that '43 could understand. They were following along contentedly, but time gave out. He had to give up the floor to Dan McGraw, '68, president of the undergraduate council and a member of the swimming team.
"In the 1950s we saw Negroes being beaten and kicked on TV," he said, and he didn't have to ask, "What did you do about it? Join the Mount Vernon NAACP?" He did say to answers they would have made, "That wasn't the violence of Bonnie and Clyde, nor was the story of tragic assassination of Medgar Evers, President Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and now this last one."
They weren't used to hearing Malcolm's name in the litany of political murders. He continued, pushing where they were least likely to feel sympathy: "Confrontation does seem to bring results. . . . riots work . . . the alumni are mainly interested in (1) the political views of the faculty and (2) the sexual behavior of the students, but I'd like some of you to have some effect on the social injustices that are occurring in the United States."
The young man sat down to no applause as the chairman said, "I think half a dozen guys here would like to take you aside and talk to you." Then he introduced the next student, a young man of '68, who told them, "I'm a little right of center here at Harvard. I'm a liberal working, as the cliché goes, inside the system."
He explained what a liberal at Harvard is: "I'm opposed to LSD, but nobody has demonstrated that marijuana is harmful; I believe that Harvard should come out against the war; if drafted I would not fight, but I don't think I'd go to Canada . . . you feel threatened because you are losing your power, not that I'm suggesting that you will end up in camps for people without power."
"Well, well," the chairman said, glancing at the two properly dressed young men who looked orthodox enough. "We all have a lot to learn, but I want to thank you for your forthrightness. It's a shame there's nobody to defend our lousy generation."
Before the floor was thrown open to everybody, another classmate was asked to talk, Henry Heyburn, a lawyer from Louisville, Kentucky, who in the last twenty-five years has been the kind of model person a good college strives to graduate. It takes three inches of agate type in the Report to list all the offices Henry has held: three terms as a Republican representative in the state legislature, chancellor of the Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky, vice president of the Community Chest, member of the board of regents of Kentucky State College and the Overseers Visiting Committee of the Harvard Divinity School. Yet he had to struggle to get anything out of his mouth that made any sense. "Not long ago," he said, "when we were at Harvard, when there was a debate on the radio it was at least twenty-four hours before the next speaker commented on it, but now with the television the commentators are out commenting on it right away and that may explain something. . . . We have a tremendous commitment to liberty in Vietnam. I even resent I'll have to pay taxes for these young fellows' upkeep in jail."
Al Casey, the president of the Los Angeles TimesMirror Company, was disturbed by what he'd heard. The class of '43 was just as involved in politics, he argued, but it recognized a debt to the community that had nurtured it and paid that debt by accepting the will of the majority. "I accept the debt," one of the students answered him. "I accept it up to a point, but after that point, if there is a conflict between my will and the majority, I will not shoot someone to pay back what I owe the community. And in some cases in modern society the majority will is irrelevant. Is it the majority will that people in the ghetto pay higher prices for food than you do?"
Casey didn't respond. The student had moved the discussion into a perspective the classmates felt uncomfortable about, one that sees formal representative government as resting on a huge interlocking of small minority interests which very crudely conform to the will of a large, hypothetical, distant, and disinterested majority. As a system it works well enough for Stuyvie, although even he grumbles, but for the poor, the blacks, the people the two graduating students are concerned with, it mostly fails.
For the classmates of 1943 the system has imperfections, burrs on the welding of the social structure which can be ground down by orderly workmen, but that is not how their adversaries in Winthrop lounge look at things, and that is probably why Paul Sheeline, the hotel company vice president, got up and asked his accusatory questions. "I'd like to ask these students what led to the imprisonment at Harvard University of a recruiter from Dow Chemical. I'd also like to ask him about the burning of faculty research papers such as happened at Columbia University. How do you justify that?"
"I, too, feel horrified at burning a man's life-work," one of the students answered, "but the demonstration against Dow—it has to be compared to what you're protesting against. When a lot of people here at Harvard compared holding a man for seven hours against the travesties and crimes of Vietnam, the differences in the two acts were quite clear. At Columbia, the people there felt there was no other way to get things done."
It was not a particularly persuasive argument to use on this group of classmates. Their experience has generally been getting the things done they wanted done; even more than that, many of the men in the room appeared to have had existences in which they never yearned to see things done, to see great changes made. Their fundamental social wishes had been anticipated; life had taught them to be oblivious, uncritical, imperceptive. Louis Cabot seemed to exemplify this attitude: Cabot, it was said by the other classmates, is gigantically wealthy, the richest man in the class. They also said he is a lot less stuffy than in his undergraduate days, but he was still having difficulty putting himself in the other man's position:
"I'd like to bring up this great concern for social injustice as if we'd never had it," he said. "We made a lot of things happen in our time, more things than have happened in any time short of revolution. Look at universal education, look at the redistribution of wealth, but you do have to have law and order. One reason we may have a bad image is the sort of insincerity with which we spew out garbage in the advertising world. Even so, you should stop and think, what if our fathers and mothers had allowed us all this self-examination and analysis you have today? I doubt we could have won World War II."
"I hope to God you were as analytical about Pearl Harbor as we are about Vietnam," one of the students answered him, but Cabot let the matter drop.
Yet the classmates aren't all or mostly multi-millionaires congratulating themselves on presiding over near revolutionary redistribution of wealth. One of the men in the room, at least, wished to make clear that he found being lumped with Lou Cabot and A1 Casey uncomfortable. "I'm concerned that you homogenize all of us and fail to realize that some of us are on your side," said Dr. Herbert Weiner, a professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "I suppose my concern is a twinge of resentment that you should think we didn't have the same ideals or that we are scared of you and what you believe."
He spoke in a careful way, inviting somebody to take up the idea of common interests, but nobody did and the time for the next planned activity was approaching. People left Winthrop almost depressed. The young ones had told them the familial bond of love wasn't enough for satisfactory human relationships. There would have to be power, too, and that seemed terribly saddening to some of the older people, who wanted to give their children everything, their money, their power, their automobiles, and their crabgrass-less lawns—only with love, with the family closeness which is so much the mark of the generation of '43.
he next two days were a nostalgic, introspective decline. The men were morbid, talking about their waistlines. Every inch is an inch closer to death, not that they ever mention it outright. Some people when they get older have interludes of satisfaction that are a mixture of fatigue and contentment, insights into how it could be that they might welcome old age and death, but these men show no signs of it. They act as if they have to be imperishable. Their women are more relaxed, more casual about the challenges and contests. "This is our last fling," said Nancy Putnam, in the lobby of the Copley (now the Sheraton Plaza), where the classmates and their older children were having a dinner dance. (Count Basie for the classmates, The Walk on Water for the kids.) "Five years from now we'll be in the repair era. Oh, you could write a novel about us here tonight . . . just us women seeing the girls we came out with and wondering if we can still compete."
It rained so hard on Commencement Day they had to take the most prideful pageant of American academic life inside. There was no room, so the classmates had to watch the Shah of Iran get his honorary degree on television. "Imagine, rain on a Harvard Commencement," said one of the hired serving ladies under the tent in Straus Quadrangle, where the classmates were given their last and best feeding and boozing. "It's this modern religion."
It cleared up for the Commencement "spread" and afternoon speechmaking. Most everyone was beat; some, like Ben Bradlee, had left in a discouraged mood, but Andy Whiteside seemed to have been carried up to new levels of bonhomie. He pinned up the front of his E.D.P. Kilroy hat so he looked like a roughrider.
"Youth! Agito ergo sum! That's what they believe. Activist youth, short-sleeved shirts, open collars and closed minds; hobnailed boots and we shall overcome. All over the world it's the same, the same exhilaration of riding the wave of the future. These nineteen-year-olds need a good reaming."
A classmate in advertising came up and complained that a nephew with long hair had moved into his basement and "told my children I was a fool to get up and go to work at six o'clock in the morning."
The classmates and all the other classes lined up to march to the speechmaking. The fifty-year class was there. War cost them their commencement and their 25th. There was a banner at the very beginning of the line that said 1882, but that seemed impossible. The processions proceeded; a Saltonstall gave a speech praising the war on poverty; the Shah in dark glasses, looking like a roué from the Côte d'Azur, began his speech. A small group of students came down the center aisle to protest, but the Chief Marshal and his aides in top hats and striped pants had at them with their gold-tipped batons.
The best of the ordinary people sat in their chairs and seemed not to be aware.
Copyright © 1968 by Nicholas von Hoffman. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1968; The Class of '43 Is Puzzled - 68.10; Volume 222, No. 4; page 69-76.