Monday, February 8, 2010

Summer, 1972

Two weeks ago I wrote about my inability to stop writing fiction, even after many failed attempts to sell anything.

Because my id keeps the creative impulse alive, and my superego tells me I'll never sell anything, I decided that I would write something that I wanted, not something I thought would sell. I'm finally tackling a story that I've wanted to tell for years.

In the summer of 1972, I took a student tour around the United States via Greyhound bus (it cost $900; today’s student cost more and last a week). There were 35 of us, mostly from Palo Alto; we were astonishingly homogenous — white, middle-class, mostly strait-laced, even though it was a time when the rules of what constituted "good morals" were being re-written.

Perhaps everyone thinks the summer they were 16 is grist for the Great American Novel, but I (or my id) would argue strongly for 1972. It was the fuzzy transition between the Sexy 60s and the Subdued 70s. It looked like the war in Vietnam was ending, but a cloud was hovering in the form of corruption, inflation, and the oncoming era of limitations. The people we called Jesus Freaks were the beginning of the fundamentalist movement (I dated one). The way women saw themselves was shifting like a loose tectonic plate. Engineers here in Silicon Valley were inventing the microprocessors that would power the computers that would change the way we lived.

It was a wonderful summer that affected me deeply. It brought me a best friend, who introduced me to my wife. It gave me an interest in travel, which blossomed into my first career as a travel writer. It showed me how different the rest of the United States was from California, an education in itself.

Surprisingly, creating the atmosphere of 1972 has been simple. While I have been religiously dragging around ephemera and memorabilia from 1972, the irony is that researching the elements of the past is remarkably easy, thanks to the web. One baseball almanac site lists the score of every single baseball game that summer. eBay posts auctions of postcards from our destinations the way they were. The brochures from the Civil War battlefields we visited are online, refreshing my memory on why the heck we were visiting them.

And, like any novelist, I get to (or my id gets to) tell the story differently, with a little more sex, a little less stupidity, and a little more insight into the angst many of us must have been harboring.

Best of all, I get to plunge headlong into a time of promise and pleasure. We told ourselves we were living lives of "divine decadence" (a phrase we stole from Cabaret), even though it was all pretty tame in retrospect. But after that summer, there were colleges to apply to, jobs to compete for, gas lines to sit in, rising prices to worry about. Life was never the same after that summer, and I was too young to know that life was never the same after every summer.

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