P.J. O’Rourke on Grabbing the Keys to Happiness
From his new book ‘The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way (And It Wasn’t My Fault) (And I’ll Never Do It Again),’ The Daily Beast columnist on when America’s rubber finally met the road.
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven, as William Wordsworth said when he got his driver’s license.
The Baby Boom’s first social movement was cruising. This is not to be confused with Cruisin’—adolescence on wheels as it is poorly remembered in popular culture and badly reenacted in Plymouth Belvederes by old bald guys. I never saw a carhop wearing roller skates. The idea was as stupid then as it is now.
Nor did we cruise in the singles bar or Christopher Street sense, loitering with sexual intent. We were full of sexual intentions. And we could loiter. But we had a broader agenda.
We drove around and around. Our parents didn’t understand cruising. They thought we were driving around to find a place to drink and make out. Not that we weren’t. But the Greatest Generation, with its dull powers of fancy, never suspected that our goal was to have no goal at all. Life is a journey, not a destination, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said when he got his driver’s license.
We had the perfect pointless joy of freedom. It wasn’t just our parents who didn’t understand; neither do we anymore. We as grownups tell ourselves, “Freedom is a serious responsibility,” or, “Freedom means making important choices,” or, if we’ve had a couple of drinks and are listening to an oldies station, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” We as kids tell ourselves as grownups, “No, it’s not,” and “No, it doesn’t.” And our kids tell us that Janis Joplin needed Auto-Tune. I leave it to others to decide whether, over the years, the Baby Boom has gained sophistication concerning the ontological question of free will.
We drove around and around. There were a few little red sports cars, hot rods, custom jobs, and bitching sets of wheels. Very few. Turning 16 caused our parents to break out in a rash of vehicular insipidity. (Any good Baby Boom boy my age can testify that the oomph went out of American family car design in 1963.) Dad bought Mom a snappy convertible back about the time of the Nixon-Kennedy debates. When we got our driver’s license, he traded it in on a station wagon.
Only rich kids with indulgent parents and poor kids with after-school jobs had their own cars. And thus began the political trend of Angry Middle Class Resentment. The middle class is furious, or at least as furious as middle-class proprieties allow. You’ve seen it in the firebrand—well, Weber grill charcoal lighter—demagoguery and the crass rabble-rousing (though we’re not rabble, so call it Babbitt-rousing) of recent elections and on Morning Joe.
Once the Baby Boom had gone through all of its rudimentary phases of ideological development, from revolutionary pimples to Reaganite hip replacement, the true politics of our generation would be revealed. In America the reasonably well-off and moderately comfortable are the angry masses. It has to do with borrowing Mom’s car.
My friend Jim Fisk tried seriously to make the best of things. He showed everybody how one pull on a lever caused the whole front seat of his mother’s Nash Rambler to fold down into a bed.
My friend Ana Klein said, “You’re going to pull the lever and some girl’s going to flip over backward and break her neck.”
“No girl,” said my friend Al Bartz, “is willing to be seen dead in a Nash Rambler.”
* * *Turning 16 caused us to break out in a rash of unwonted helpfulness. “I’ll go to the supermarket, Mom. We’re almost out of paprika.”
We drove around and around. The cars got bad mileage. But gas was 31 cents a gallon. We could get to where all the other kids were by looking under the couch cushions. Unspoken consensus made driving up and down certain streets obligatory and parking in certain places required. Sometimes when we parked we were “parking,” as the art of love was called, and sometimes when we parked we were parked. We got out of our cars to talk to each other. We’re a talkative generation, and only so much can be shouted from a car window.
We got out of our cars but not away from them. That would have been like separating the body from the soul. Or, not to overstate the case, it would have been like getting too far from a bathroom for the males among us 50 years later. We lounged against the fenders. We perched on the trunk lids. We stood in the open doors with one foot resting on the sill and an elbow cocked on the roof, looking cool. It wasn’t just my cool friend Leo Luhan who thought he was cool. Now we all did. And the cars of those days didn’t ruin looking cool with nagging ding-dong noises if you left the car door open and the keys in the ignition.
It’s heavy lifting conducting light flirtations. Real effort goes into crafting an effortless guise. We worked up an appetite. Drive-in burger restaurants played a crucial role in cruising. They were parking lots with food.
We had plenty to talk to each other about and plenty of each other to talk to. The Baby Boom was discovering itself—and not in the tiresome way that we would keep doing for the rest of our lives until, by now, every rock in our psyche has been overturned and each wiggling thing that we’ve found underneath has been squashed or made into a pet. Youth was discovering youth. Not only were there lots of us, there were lots more of us. Other kids went to other high schools. The boys were almost as cool. The girls were even cuter.
Driving around was our Facebook. We never thought to monetize it. Generational vice? Or generational virtue?
* * *We drove around and around and we talked and talked. We talked about what’s cool and what’s uncool. No one listens when teenagers talk, including the teenagers themselves most of the time. But teenagers were (and still are in present-day text messages) having an ancient colloquy of deep significance.
What we discussed appears in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Proverbs 17:27, “…he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.” Cool. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a line from a 1440 Chaucer poem, “…thynkist in thyn wit that is ful cole…” Spelling Bees are uncool. In 1938, Eric Partridge, the 20th century’s preeminent lexicographer of slang, gave a cool definition of cool in A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English: “impertinent, impudent, audacious, especially if in a calm way.” This was in common use by the mid-1820s, Standard English by the mid-1880s, and exactly what we were talking about by the mid-1960s. In 2010, Partridge’s lexicographic heir, Jonathan Green, author of the 6,000-page Green’s Dictionary of Slang, devoted 18 column inches to cool and said, “as with a number of slang’s (rare) abstract terms, it is less than simple to draw hard-and-fast lines between the senses.”
We’ve been out of our senses a lot. The Baby Boom was always less than simple. Forget the hard-and-fast lines. We are a fiery generation, heated in our affection, feverish in our action, blistering in our scorn—and obsessed with being cool. Later we’d be a fat generation—obsessed with being fit. We still think we’re cool. That isn’t all. We still think we’re hot.
Good thing we talked this out while we were driving around.
* * *The music we listened to was cool. The power of our generation is our music. But, in the interest of speaking truth to power, I looked at the Billboard Top 100 for the year I went from junior to senior in high school. We liked “Everybody Loves Somebody” by Dean Martin (No. 6) better than we liked The Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” (No. 52). We liked “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine” by Gale Garnett (No. 8) better than we liked The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” (No. 78). The Rolling Stones didn’t make the chart. Leo Luhan had mentioned them. He said you could tell their music was influenced by The Kingsmens’ “Louie Louie.” Here are the actual lyrics to “Louie Louie” as posted on the Internet, a medium that does not spare our sensibilities:
Louie Louie, oh no
Me gotta go
Aye-yi-yi-yi, I said
Louie Louie, oh baby
Me gotta go
And more of the same. If it’s any comfort, the previous year’s Billboard Top 100 was worse. “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh, Here I Am at Camp Granada…” and “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” by Eydie Gorme.
There were three AM stations playing the same songs. This was good because when one station finished playing a song we could push the buttons on the car radio and find the same song being played on another station. We enjoyed hearing songs over and over. As with wearing clothes like everyone else’s and belonging to a clique and driving around to the same places at the same times, it forged individual identity.
A lot of identical individual identities were forged. We saw nothing ironic about this. So far the Baby Boom had only a mild, Playboy cartoon-caption case of the ironic. Irony wouldn’t become chronic and severe until the ‘70s, when we ran out of cool things that we all agreed on and disco happened.
AM radio was the soundtrack of our life. That was a cool thing that we all agreed on while we were driving around. Leo Luhan considered himself a talented composer of the soundtrack of his life. He made suggestions to the manager of the drive-in burger restaurant about what should be on the jukebox.
The restaurant had tables and booths inside, where we went when it was too cold to be cool outside. There was a sophomore we knew, driving around with us. He didn’t have his driver’s license. Leo convinced him to go into the burger restaurant and feed the jukebox so that the right soundtrack theme song would be playing when Leo walked through the door. Other kids had fed the jukebox. Twenty minutes passed before “Louie Louie” came on. We had to get up on our knees in the restaurant booth and frantically signal to Leo who was waiting in the car and had trouble seeing us through his sunglasses. By the time he got there, the jukebox was playing “We’ll Sing in yhe Sunshine.”
* * *Perhaps there were as many troubled adolescents then as there are now. But young people are sensitive to fashion trends, and being troubled wasn’t in style. Girls weighed 90 pounds and barfed after eating a whole half-gallon of butter pecan ice cream. Boys drove cars into phone poles at 70 miles an hour. But anorexia, bulimia, and teenage suicide were unheard of.
We were having fun. The stories we could tell–-and do tell and will tell and have told and keep telling in movies, songs, TV shows, memoirs, blogs (though not much in poems and novels-–literature is the enemy of fun) and to spouses, children, each other, and to ourself now that we’ve started talking to that person. There was the time Jim Fisk and I drove overnight to Hell, Michigan, a 422-mile round-trip so we could say that we’d “been to hell and back.” We left right after school on a Wednesday and… Oh, shut up.
But there’s proof that it was a wonderful moment for our generation in the very fact of how boring our stories are. Every description of paradise is boring. According to the Bible, Adam and Eve didn’t even notice they were naked and spent all day naming animals. It’s a shame how the Baby Boom has never learned to appreciate boredom. It would make this current part of our lives more interesting.
Teenage ’60s middle-class America was a shining suburb on a hill. Almost 20 years would go by before we realized that. We’ve been trying to walk or fly or bum a ride back there since the first John Hughes movie came out.
It wasn’t just fun. It was a state of grace. We wanted to bestow our state of grace upon the world. Youth was a virtue. We pitied the moral lapse of those who lacked it. Life was good. We were living. Therefore we were good. Since we were good, and we were mankind, then mankind was good. We’d make mankind as good as itself and living as fun as life. We’d change everything. And we’d write in each other’s high school yearbooks, “Don’t ever change!”