Wandering Wide-Eyed in America, Part 9: Exploring Late 20th Century America

In the final part of his series on traveling America as an immigrant, Eric Anderson, MD, looks at the latter half of his adopted home country's 20th century.

In a way, the prediction for America’s second half of the 20th century was made by Frederick Lewis Donaldson, the canon of Westminster in London. He was not aiming specifically at America but, a Christian Socialist, really at the unfair world.

In a sermon in 1925 at Westminster Abbey he identified the Seven Social Sins as:

Wealth without work.

Pleasure without conscience.

Knowledge without character.

Commerce without morality.

Science without humanity.

Worship without sacrifice.

Politics without principle.

Perhaps that is more our current 21st century. However, the second half of America’s 20th century came bittersweet. We had thought wars were over and life would be easy. But J. R. R. Tolkien had a character once say “If this is victory, then our hands are too small to hold it.” Oh sure, we can learn some things from war and President Eisenhower had seen the value of the German autobahn and decided America should build such highways once we could afford it. Tourists were able to photograph those first eight interstate miles later in, of course, Kansas. And as Tom Brokaw’s greatest generation came home from the war, it could validate America’s beliefs in what it saw around it: how their general had come from a humble home, how the locals loved him, how his face was rendered on the walls of public buildings, how Ike’s identity was as genuine, as precious as a Honus Wagner-signed baseball. This was a different time in America, not like today when people love their country but hate their politicians.

The first stretch of interstate in the USA: eight miles in Kansas. A painting of Eisenhower almost in a pointillism style in Abilene, KS. Insert: a Honus Wagner signed baseball. The Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.

Then came Korea. As a granite slab at Washington, DC’s Korean War Veterans Memorial commemorating “The Forgotten War” explains: “Our nation honors her sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.” The pathos of this haunting monument is overwhelming and although we know war is what happens when politicians run out of ideas we could be forgiven surely for thinking our nation had done its duty and could now rest.

About a decade later the politicians are back. But yes, we have to stop communism, we have no choice even while pacifists and cynics say, “War is big business; invest your sons.” The deluge continues.

Author Vicki Harrison once said, “Grief is like the ocean; it comes in waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.” The water is never calm at the Vietnam Wall.

This was not an easy time to be a world leader. Images; Top left: John F. Kennedy at the Kennedy Presidential Library, Boston. Below, JFK’s statue in Hyannis, Cape Cod. Top Right: The EKG of the first Russian in Space photographed at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, KS. Center: from the steps of Lincoln Monument. Bottom Jefferson Memorial.

The Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, TX, is powerful—almost intimidating—but he had that effect on congressmen as well. His massive Lincoln Continental seems appropriate. The Pen of Liberty on display in Hampton University Museum in Hampton, VA, is one of three identical pens used by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 and 1863 to sign the three proclamations which emancipated enslaved African Americans. The image of such a pen from the 19th century is placed here on an LBJ page because of the work Johnson did in civil rights legislation starting as early as 1957 (though some thought his motivation was suspect).

When our nation wasn’t at war it had the opportunity for escape—not the indolent vacations of, say, the French—but it could pile into the family automobile and take off from simple Victorian-style vacation choices such as in Martha’s Vineyard, MA, to luxurious places such as Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The new concept—the motel—was not expensive, roads were not crowded, gas was cheap, the national mood was positive. Life was good.

Life was good. Hollywood helped. We could escape from war, from realism, whether into a gentler movie age with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or head first into galactic war with Star Wars, all photographed in that town of marvelous murals, Anacortes, WA.

We shared Kennedy’s angst that the Russians got into space first. It seemed dangerous. We were pleased he felt America needed to define its challenge, its moonshot. We came from behind but we really won this race. We felt again we could have pride in our gung-ho can-do country. The Virginia Air & Space Center in Hampton, VA, exhibits 30 aircraft (on three floors) and NASA’s new Orion spacecraft; it has flight simulators and the Apollo 12 Command Module. My photograph of the Moon Walk reflection from the space shoot visor is of the NASA shot of Alan Bean pictured by Pete Conrad (who is reflected in Bean’s helmet).

We all met Nixon in our New Hampshire towns when he was doing the rounds in the Presidential politicking. His aides handed me a bumper banner that came as close as a politician ever could with the truth, because later, when our world came to Watergate, the bumper sticker told us exactly who was who. Later, at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum in Ann Arbor, MI, we could see the original office files that were broken into. Nixon had a sad ending to his presidency but some cynics say his mistake was just getting caught.

Nixon resigned in 1974. Reagan got shot in 1981. His chest x-ray at the Reagan Presidential Library shows us how seriously at risk he was and reminds us that two presidents were shot dead in the 20th century (McKinley and Kennedy). One of Reagan’s saddles tells of a more carefree time for our president. Maybe.

We have barely got over agonizing at Reagan’s chest x-ray before we find, hanging on a wall in a Key West, FL, breakfast café, a Rocky Point, New York firefighter’s helmet. It was a time when America lost its innocence, Sept. 11, 2001. Who does not remember when 2,753 souls died so badly in the Twin Towers? When 343 firefighters and paramedics went up the stairs as others came down? When 60 NYPD and Port Authority police officers died in their duty? When 3,051 children lost a parent? When the public, that day, donated 36,000 units of blood to the New York Blood Center? When fires burned for 99 days? When “America’s Mayor” Rudy Giuliani attended 200 funerals? And when later 422,000 New Yorkers were estimated to suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of 9/11? When America changed?

But we all know of better times. I remember a more gentle time in New York State in a small town so far removed from war and terror, Cooperstown, the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the home of America’s favorite game. How can we think of terrorism when, for example, we are looking at Cy Young’s baseball glove and the ball that gave him his 500th win?

In a way I have come full circle in my way around my country. It began in a private place in Boston’s remote Back Bay at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the oldest historical society in the United States. It began when I was holding the one surviving lantern of the two on the North Church that sent Paul Revere on his journey. It has ended on a lighter vein when a kindly custodian at the Baseball Hall of Fame sent me down to the basement where most of their photography was done — and sent with me magical artifacts that personalized America’s favorite sport.

I had asked for permission and a place to photograph those items “but not through glass.” I was shown into a minor dark room with a small table and a blind behind the table to give a neutral background to any item photographed. I was then handed the items I wanted to photograph as a group: Babe Ruth’s baseball shoes, shoes whose feet had broken into a home-run trot 60 times once in a season — and 714 times in a lifetime. And Lou Gehrig’s baseball cap on the head of a giant in the sport who hit in 2,130 consecutive games although he would die at the age of 38. And Joe di Maggio’s glove; here we are not talking about death but about the hand that held that of Marilyn Monroe.

I had started my wandering across the United States worrying about wars but have ended up happily in Norman Rockwell’s America.

Photography by the author. Images copyright Eric Anderson.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.