In my tenth year, in 1970, my family—my mom, my dad, my seven-year-old brother Tom, and I—moved to the American suburbs. More precisely, we moved to the town of Lexington, Massachusetts, a community of thirty thousand people a dozen miles northwest of Boston. Our house, which cost thirty thousand dollars, was like a child’s drawing of a suburban home: a square block with a door and a window on the ground floor, and two windows on the story above, one looking out from my bedroom, the other from Tom’s. A single big maple spread its branches over the front lawn and the driveway, dropping leaves on the maroon Plymouth that my father drove on his daily commute. We were as statistically average as it was possible to be, a near-perfect example of the white American middle class, which was then in the process of rocketing to a kind of prosperity—a widespread, shared, suburban standard of living—that the world had never before seen. We lived—and this is the truth—halfway down a leafy road called Middle Street.
Being ten, I assumed that this was how most people lived, an idea that was not entirely ridiculous: between 1950 and 1970, America’s suburban population nearly doubled, to seventy-four million; and suburbs accounted for eighty-three per cent of the nation’s growth. And I assumed, I think, that this was what the future would look like, a modest paradise whose comfortable embrace would encompass more and more Americans. Perhaps some people could have envisioned the doubtful nation that we inhabit fifty years later: a society strained by bleak racial and economic inequality, where life expectancy was falling even before the pandemic deepened our divisions, on a heating planet whose physical future is dangerously in question. But those people didn’t live on my block.
I’ve been looking back at that era, trying to make sense of America in my lifetime, so let me tell you about two important events that happened in 1971, the year after we arrived in Lexington. I was aware of one of them at the time; the other I learned about only recently. In deference to Dr. Seuss, a literary staple of that era, I will call those events Thing One and Thing Two. But to understand them you need to understand the particular town in which they were set in, and the moment out of which they grew.
Lexington was where the American Revolution began, in 1775. But by, say, 1875, its past was past, and its present was largely dairy. The milk rode the train into Boston each morning, and so did more and more residents; as the twentieth century began, Lexington was in the process of turning from a farm town into a bedroom community for the expanding metropolis. From thirty-eight hundred people in 1900, it grew to thirteen thousand by the start of the Second World War. When the war was over, the town took off, more than doubling in size by 1960.
In the early postwar years, the local newspaper—called, of course, the Lexington Minuteman—reported on proposed bids for a big new high school, and on a new four-story wing under construction at the local hospital, where four hundred babies had been born in the past year; the town’s board of selectmen discussed “the phenomenal expansion” of Lexington, which saw nine hundred and forty-seven new permits granted for single-family dwellings. By 1952—when Clarabell, the clown from television’s “Howdy Doody Show,” made a much-awaited appearance at a shoe store, and construction began on a “new, ultra-modern” A. & P. supermarket, with “a self-service meat department”—school-enrollment numbers were way up, a trend that continued for decades.
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If there were a few dark shadows—the civil-defense agency wanted to blood-type all residents in case of atomic attack, and the town’s first air-raid test fizzled when, according to a local history published by the Lexington Savings Bank, “the fire whistle malfunctioned and sounded for a full ten minutes instead of a three minute series of short bursts”—most of the news from the fifties and early sixties was about progress and growth. Color television had “its first public showing,” in 1954, when an appliance store unveiled the latest Motorola; in 1955, the Salk polio vaccine was first administered (and without resistance from local residents); and a sonic boom, “the first purposeful breaking of the sound barrier in the Greater Boston area,” enlivened patriotic observations, in 1956. Yes, the town’s oldest tree was cut down, in 1960, a victim of Dutch Elm disease, and odor complaints finally led to the revocation of the license for the town’s last remaining piggery. But the garden center reported selling a ton of birdseed every week, even as mosquito-control authorities announced their success in spraying a miracle agent, D.D.T., from helicopters over the town’s wetlands to control that ancient pest. And, in 1964, “the Beatles, Britain’s gift to the teen-age world” landed in town, en route to a concert in Boston.
As the sixties wore on, however, even the most bucolic suburbs couldn’t escape the tensions starting to roil America. Hanscom Field, the Air Force base that straddled the Lexington town line, and where the Beatles touched down, grew noisier as the war in Southeast Asia expanded; the Air Force’s Electronic Systems Center was established there to consolidate its electronic systems under one command. (The computerized network for detecting incoming ballistic missiles was eventually called the Lexington Discrimination System.) More and more local boys were drafted—one wrote home in 1965 to say that he “would pay $1,000 to be able to lie down at the Lexington Common with a tall glass of iced tea.” The following year, NBC arrived to film an hourlong special, “The World of the Teenager,” but “town pride over being chosen turned to anger when the documentary aired,” the local historian Richard Kollen reports. Footage of local youths learning to waltz in jacket and tie or long dresses was intercut with scenes from “rock-and-roll dance parties” and “coffeehouses,” reflecting what the narrator called “a teen-age restlessness, stirring, and doubt”; he added that “throughout America there is a widespread dissatisfaction among young people with what has been handed down to them, with adult values and with established tradition.” Kids complained to the camera that Lexington was dull, with nothing for them to do; the police chief said that the trouble was “over-permissiveness in the home.” One adult explained, “I think this is the period of the individual. They now are taking a notice-me attitude.” A town official asked, “How can we get and keep them back into the mainstream of our orderly social and civic life?” Not easily, it turned out—over the next few years, the Minuteman was full of accounts of the police busting up “pot parties” featuring “blaring rock’n’roll, marijuana cigarettes, and plenty of whiskey and beer.” (One week, the crime blotter reported that two youths had “cooked marijuana in the oven at one of their homes.”) In 1968, at Lexington High School, “a male student was sent home and told not to return until his locks were properly shorn and came back to classes Tuesday morning with his hair cut. . . . Students—both male and female—began instantly to circulate petitions in protest. ‘Look at Mozart,’ they have said. ‘Look at Paul Revere.’ ”
Yet Lexington struggled gamely to keep up with the changing world: a ban on private use of the suddenly not-so-miraculous D.D.T. went into effect, on January 1st of the new decade, and barrels were placed outside the Department of Public Works’ barn so that people could dispose of the pesticide. The selectmen—one of whom was now a woman—declared January 15th Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. Also in 1970, the first dead soldier came back from Vietnam in a coffin, and Ralph Nader gave the library’s annual lecture, blasting both air pollution and hot dogs, which he called “innovations to relieve food companies of all their crud.”
So, at a time in the country when new kinds of people were making new kinds of demands that thrilled some and worried, even angered, others, Lexington was a place that was going to have to make some choices. Consider all that as the backdrop to the two events I want to describe.
Thing One happened over Memorial Day weekend of 1971, and it’s one of my first “public” memories—most of what I can recall from the previous nine years of my life are private events that involved me and my family, not history. This one involved both. The war in Vietnam had increasingly divided Lexington—thousands of residents had turned out in 1969 to rally on the common for a moratorium in the fighting. “Peace at any cost is not the American dream,” the newspaper had editorialized in response. Two years earlier, a couple of high-school students had organized a demonstration in support of the troops, which drew three thousand people to the same spot. But all this was prelude: in May, 1971, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (a group that included a lanky twenty-seven-year-old John Kerry, who had just become famous for making a speech before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which he asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”) announced plans to follow the route of Paul Revere’s midnight ride in reverse, ending on Boston Common. The group had got approval to camp on the Friday night near the bridge in the neighboring town of Concord, and had asked Lexington’s selectmen for permission to bivouac on the town’s historic common, also known as the Battle Green, the next night. “Lexington could be a South Vietnamese or Laotian village,” they said. Like the Minutemen of 1775, Vietnamese guerrillas were “simply fighting for the privilege to determine their own destiny,” and to “exist apart from foreign domination.”
But Lexington Common had a 10 P.M. curfew, and the board of selectmen refused to lift it. The veterans could march single file through the town, and hand out leaflets, as long as they did not litter the sidewalks, but the board chairman—a lifelong town resident named Robert Cataldo, who was also a nursing-home administrator, and had been awarded the Purple Heart during the Second World War—said that “the Board agreed that no good purpose could be served by the demonstration or the encampment.” The veterans, at their encampment in Concord, voted to defy the order and to bivouac on the Battle Green the next night.
My parents were not firebrands—my mother was not among the 29.1 per cent of Lexington women who were then working outside the home, and my father wrote for Business Week. But they were good liberals, and firm believers in civic education, and so late that Saturday afternoon we drove to the Battle Green. The veterans had not yet arrived, and the streets were largely clear, but I can remember the menacing sound and sight of a contingent of men on motorcycles circling the green, their Hells Angels patches easy to read on their backs. Word came that the selectmen were holding a meeting at Town Hall to explain their decision, and so we walked four blocks through the center of town to hear them. Past Cary Library, where I was already a regular in the downstairs children’s room; past Brighams, the town’s ice-cream parlor. Past Michelson Shoes, and the Pewter Pot coffee shop, with thirty different muffins on the menu. Past the barbershop, where there were known to be copies of Playboy among the stacks of Sports Illustrated and Field & Stream; past the Bargain Barn, where you went for back-to-school shopping; past the Chinese restaurant and the Italian restaurant, which constituted the extent of ethnic food in 1971; past the train station, and the Lexington Savings Bank, where I already had a passbook; and past the movie theatre, where “Love Story” dominated the box-office that spring. We joined a growing stream of people headed the same direction.
Town Hall was by necessity a large building, because, like many places in New England, Lexington governs itself via town meetings. It’s not the pure kind of direct democracy that you find in Vermont hamlets, where everyone shows up on a Tuesday in March to argue and vote on the town budget; at thirty thousand residents, Lexington had outgrown that system. But its citizens still elected (and still do) a veritable parliament—two hundred and three legislators, from nine precincts, who set policy that the selectmen implemented—which sat in Town Hall for a few Monday nights each spring. That night, though, anyone could go in, and so we did. Perhaps because I’d never seen anything remotely like it before, the air seemed to crackle—adults were emotional, out of control in ways entirely unfamiliar to me. I remember Selectman Cataldo saying something, and before he could finish a woman rose from her chair to scream—scream—“You speak with forked tongue!” Again, this was happening a long time ago, in a different world: that week, an ad in the paper for a dry cleaner had a drawing of a well-dressed man under the legend “My Position Demands a Neat Appearance. It’s a Clever Wife Who Sees to It That all My Suits, Slacks, Jackets, and Coats are Taken Regularly to the Professional Cleansers at Craft.”