This post originally aired as a commentary on KOSU Radio in 2012.
Indulge me while I extol the virtues of my idyllic childhood summers. This way you can understand the absolute misery of my idle youth.
In the late 60s and early 70s, I played on Huntington Beach. After sunset, we drove to an old Taco Bell that had a fire pit, torch lights and green burritos. By the mid 1970s, I was living near Pikes Peak Mountain and swimming at Star Ranch. And a couple of years after that, I was chasing tumbleweeds in West Texas.
And, there were the glorious cider stands in New Mexico and our homemade fishing poles in Arkansas and farms in East Texas.
I moved around a lot as a kid and we were poor, but in many ways, I was quite happy. I like to think of myself that way, anyway.
Until the Summer of 1981, when all this virtue evaporated. I was not quite 14 years old. Too young to get a job, too old for VBS. Too cool to ride my bike.
So began my years in Teenage Wasteland. I bummed around the house all day watching game shows and soap operas.
Sometimes, I went to work with my mom. I’d traipse around downtown Bartlesville waiting for the library to open so I’d have a place to hang out. One day, I picked up a book on Vietnam War crimes.
I was very confused. Between the pages of that book, I realized my mind was a desolate landscape, My life, a swamp of boredom.
So, I began studying history, which led me to 10,000 tragedies, which I mulled over and let shape me. It was grim, but at least I was paroled from the Price Is Right.
Throughout American history youth have been vilified, glorified, exploited, ignored and now smothered and over-indulged.
In 1959, Philip Gilliam, a judge in Denver’s juvenile court system wrote an open letter to teenagers that appeared in an Indiana newspaper. Everything he wrote can be applied to the last five generations of American youth. Here is the full text:
Always we hear the plaintive cry of the teenager. What can we do? Where can we go?
The answer is GO HOME!
Hang the storm windows, paint the woodwork. Rake the leaves, mow the lawn, shovel the walk. Wash the car, learn to cook, scrub some floors. Repair the sink…get a job.
Help the minister, priest, or rabbi…Visit the sick, assist the poor, study your lessons…Your parents do not owe you entertainment. The world does not owe you a living…You owe the world something.
You owe it your time and your energy and your talents so that no one will be at war or in poverty or sick or lonely again.
Grow up…develop a backbone, not a wishbone…accept some of the responsibility your parents have carried for years.
They have nursed, protected, helped, appealed, begged, excused, tolerated and denied themselves…so that you could have every benefit…In Heaven’s name, grow up…