1972 Memoir: The American Dream

[Note: This is another essay/memoir I wrote awhile back and just rediscovered. Decided to publish it here on Quriosity to give it the exposure and adulation it deserves. AB — 26 June 2009]

The American Dream
A memoir, mostly true, from Spring 1972
by Al Bredenberg
Oct. 10, 2006

Melissa (not her real name) walked with me across the quadrangle after our American Literature class. The sun shone on her curly brown hair through the tall oak trees, their leaves bright green in their early spring growth. Melissa had very large brown eyes and an ample figure that filled out in a pleasing way the tight dress with low-cut rounded neckline, a bright floral print on crinkly fabric like crepe paper.

I asked her to go out with me and was happy when she said she would.

The night of our date, I walked to Melissa’s dorm from the house near downtown Chapel Hill where I lived with my friends John and Linda. Melissa lived in Granville Towers, not exactly a dorm — more of a quasi-off-campus apartment tower for kids with a little more money. When I had lived on campus my first semester, I had lived in Avery, one of the plebe dorms on campus.

Melissa was what at the time I would have called a “straight girl.” I didn’t go out with many straight girls, but Melissa was very pretty and nice to talk to — a doll with cheerleader good looks. And when I asked her out she said yes, so that was a positive sign. That usually didn’t happen with straight girls.

To be honest, I don’t remember much about that date. Knowing my financial situation at the time, I doubt if we did anything that cost money. I do remember that Melissa dressed down for me, wearing jeans with a white blouse. I do remember walking together; there’s a real possibility that the entire date consisted of walking around Chapel Hill and the UNC campus. I remember I told her about the meditation and yoga classes I had been taking from Ananda Marga Yoga Society and about my recent initiation with an Indian teacher called Dadaji. Hearing all of this, Melissa listened politely but didn’t have much to say. I can’t imagine what she thought about this skinny, long-haired, bearded oddball with the expanding consciousness.

Besides American Literature, I was taking Latin, Music Appreciation, and Creative Writing. In American Literature we were studying The Great Gatsby — my second try at this novel, as it was one of the ones I was supposed to have read as a junior in high school.

One day, not long after my date with Melissa (not her real name), our professor, Dr. Allen (not his real name either) started using the phrase “the American Dream” during our Great Gatsby discussion. That phrase actually sneaked out of his mouth and drifted around the room two or three times before it slithered past me and got my attention. He used it in a familiar, pat, matter-of-fact sort of way, but I wasn’t about to let him get away with it.

“What do you mean by ‘the American Dream’?” I blurted out.

Dr. Allen leveled a smug gaze at me, a hint of a smile pulling up the corners of his mouth. He explained the concept in a soothing voice: “It’s the goal we all have as Americans: to achieve wealth and success through hard work and competition.”

I sat back, eyes wide, jaw dropping. “You’re joking, right?”

The silvery, balding professorial head tilted slightly. “That’s what we’re all looking for. That’s what happiness is all about, isn’t it?”

“Nobody really believes that, do they?” Titters arose from around the classroom. I glanced around at my classmates.

“That’s why you’re all here at college. To get an education, get a good job, get ahead in the world.”

“That’s crazy,” I said. “Nobody really buys that, do they?” More titters and a few guffaws. Dr. Allen smiled down indulgently. I glanced wildly around the classroom. “Is that what you all think? Do you really think it’s going to make you happy to make it in this world and get rich?” Their expressions gave me the answer.

“So did you think that was funny?” I asked Melissa after class, as we walked across the brick courtyard in front of the bookstore. Big round eyes, full face, rounded figure. She smiled and nodded.

It came to me that this was going to be my last semester at UNC, even though I loved learning and I was making good grades. I was going to finish the semester in a few weeks and go get a job as a carpenter.

“Why are you here at school?” I asked her.

She shrugged and spoke in a matter-of-fact, ‘well, of course’ tone: “So I can get a job and make a lot of money.”

“Is that really what you think is going to make you satisfied?”

A puzzled smile on her luscious mouth. So beautiful it hurt to look at her. “Well, sure.”

“I don’t believe in it,” I said. “It’s not real.”

Large brown eyes glistening. “I don’t understand what you mean,” said Melissa. Not her real name. Actually, I don’t remember her real name.

AB — Written 10 October 2006, posted here 26 June 2009

Hold on Tight, Boys, the Wind Is Picking Up!

[Note: The following is an essay I wrote in December 2003 put never published anywhere. I just ran across it and thought I would post it on Quriosity.]

Two months ago I stood in a cemetery in Wilton, Connecticut, looking down at the shiny wooden coffin containing the body of my wife Virginia’s uncle, Paul Lyon, soon to be lowered into the dug grave and covered with earth. Nearby the coffin stood an easel bearing a montage of photos from Uncle Paul’s life mounted on a sheet of poster board. A good breeze was blowing, so my chunky teenage nephews, Kellen and Tristan, trussed uncomfortably in neckties and sport jackets, stood flanking the easel like a pair of ushers, holding either side of the cardboard sheet to keep Uncle Paul’s pictures from sailing away on the wind.

I’m a real crybaby, and that day was no exception; I thought about the cold body inside that wood box — a man I had known and liked, an affable man of my parents’ World War II generation, who had lived what I supposed was a basically decent life.

Two photos stuck to that cardboard matting also stick in my mind from that windy day in the cemetery:

One, a picture of Paul Lyon sleek in his airman’s uniform during the war, not much older than my willowy 20-year-old son Paul (named more for my father than for my wife’s uncle, and named even more for the apostle than for any relative).

The other, a photo of Paul Lyon at age 80, only a few weeks before his death, standing at his front door waving goodbye. Maybe when he lifted his hand to the camera for that wave, he had in mind the cancer that was spreading inexorably inside him.

I think a lot about life and death, and I find myself again and again coming back to photos and to numbers. I told you about some photos; now consider some numbers: At 52, I stand right about between son Paul and uncle Paul: age 20, age 50, age 80. Thirty years back and I am my son’s age, hitchhiking across the country with a duffle bag, tambourine, and five dollars in my pocket. Thirty years ahead and I am lying in a wooden crate.

I love to look at old photos from the 19th century, to leaf through a book and muse on the faces of people from that time. Their faces are fresh, the spark of life is in their eyes. In a moment, this man, I imagine, will turn from the camera, kiss his wife, walk home with her, have dinner, go to bed, and make love.

In reality, he is long dead, a pile of bones under the ground. In fact, all of these faces are gone, carried away on the wind across a cemetery. They are all dead, every single one. Maybe nobody now living remembers them or even knows their names.

And of course, the thing that I am trying to grapple with, to force myself to confront, is that, in the normal course of things, mine will become a face like that. Someone will look at my face in an album, wonder briefly who I was, then flip to the next page.

You should understand that I am speaking as one who believes that this life is not all there is, that there is a higher being who cares, who remembers us and will bring us back. And that belief underpins my life so I can live hopefully. But it doesn’t completely do away with the visceral reaction to the enveloping death that is moving toward me to cover me over and draw me down into the unthinkable sleep. It will flow over me, and I will be gone. How can there be a world, if I am not in it?

Last week I got in my car to drive up to New Hampshire to my consulting job at a graduate school in Keene. The Public Radio program Morning Edition was on, and because of the proximity of Christmas, the interviewer was speaking with bookstore managers across the country asking for recommendations of good books for gifts.

One store manager recommended a book called “When It Was Our War,” and my stomach dropped when I heard the name of the author, Stella Suberman. Jack and Stella Suberman were friends of my parents when I was growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina. I remember watching them play tennis with my mother and father, and I remember swimming in their pool, and I remember them from dinner parties and cookouts. They were two larger-than-life people, awe-inspiring and wonderful and frightening (well, Jack was scary, anyway — Stella was bright and beautiful and charismatic).

One of the devastating moments in my life (among many, admittedly) was when I told my mother I wanted to invite the Subermans to come to my high school graduation and she waved off the idea — the Subermans don’t really know me that well, she said, and they would think it odd if I invited them to my graduation. Suddenly I learned I was nothing in the eyes of these two marvelous people who had been giants to me.

So, sitting in the car last week, hearing a recommendation of Stella’s World War II memoir, I was affected … well, as I said before, I’m a real crybaby. First chance I got, I ordered a copy of “When It Was Our War” from Half.com and started reading it this week.

Reading Stella’s book I become a time traveler. It’s a story of the young wife of a soldier during the war. The fascinating thing is that I am peering into the lives of two people, important in my childhood, before I ever knew them, before I was even born. On the cover of the book are black and white photos, a small one of Jack in his uniform, a larger one of a gorgeous Stella in a short tennis skirt, leaning against a palm tree. In the photos, Jack and Stella are easily recognizable as the people I knew. Seeing their faces, I can hear their voices on the tennis court and by the pool.

But reading Stella’s reminiscence and seeing these photos gets me going playing with numbers as I am wont to do.

In these photos, Jack and Stella are about 20, the age my son is now. But they are actually the contemporaries of my father and Virginia’s departed uncle. So I can peek in on their lives and see them practically as children. When I knew them 15 years later, they seemed old and formidable to me. But even at that age, they were in fact youthful in comparison with my now ancient age of about 50.

So I take these odd jumps of 15 years backward and forward along the line of my life and that of the Subermans and somehow it emphasizes to me how fleeting it all is, while yet so rich and wonderful.

Here’s another game with numbers: I was born in 1951. Go back about five years and you’re at the end of the Second World War, which doesn’t seem that long ago to me but would to my 20-year-old son. Go back just 35 years from 1951, and you are at the end of the First World War. That does seem like a long time ago to me, but it’s a relatively short period of time compared to the 50 years that have passed (quickly it seems to me) since 1951.

I wonder if I’m making any sense.

What it kind of amounts to is that I am like the character Dave in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”: I’m a middle-aged man looking back at myself as a young man. But standing in the doorway is an old man, also myself, watching me as a middle-aged man. The whole thing passes in a flash. Day by day, the experience is sweet and incredibly deep. But all in all, 80 years is very short.

As we drove away from the cemetery in Wilton, I told my sister-in-law Natalie and my nephews, “You know, the Bible says it’s good to go to a funeral. And it says that the day of your death is better than the day of your birth.”

Natalie was intrigued by the idea. She thought maybe I was referring to the cycle of life, but that wasn’t what I had in mind. The point is that when you’re born, you could turn out to be anything at all, good or bad. But at your death, you’ve had a lifetime to show what kind of person you are — what you made out of that thin thread of years as they spun their way out.

It’s Ecclesiastes 7:1, 2 I was thinking of: “A name is better than good oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s being born. Better it is to go to the house of mourning than to go to the banquet house, because that is the end of all mankind; and the one alive should take it to his heart.”

So I look through the pages of photos and run through the numbers in my head. And I try to take it to heart. Because I can feel the wind picking up, and all-in-all I’m not much more than a picture taped to a piece of poster board.

AB — written December 2003, posted 26 June 2009