The TV sitcom Father Knows Best, which ran from 1954 to 1960, starred the loveable Robert Young (later everybody’s favorite TV family practitioner, Dr. Marcus Welby) and the beautiful Jane Wyatt, as the ideal couple Jim and Margaret Anderson. Their life at home in the Midwest suburbs was good and complete.
Jim Anderson would advise and answer Bud’s (his son, played by Ted Donaldson) questions while cleaning and polishing the golf clubs on Saturday morning. Margaret Anderson would offer common sense instructions to her daughters Betty (a boy crazy teenager played by Rhonda Williams) and young “Princess” Kathy (Norma Jean Nilsson).
Jim always wore, except on Saturday’s, a jacket and tie. Margaret was always decked out in a dress or blouse and skirt, sported full makeup with earrings, and either wore heels or sensible shoes. Dinner was served at the dining room table complete with linen napkins. It was a life America would aspire to because it was the post-war dream of every American family for stability, civil discourse, and normalcy after the nightmares of World War II and Korea.
But I didn’t grow up this way. And I’ll make the assumption you didn’t either.
It was an experiment. Levittown, I mean, just like the American Republic we live in today. Yet, through the brilliant mind and imagination of one amazing architect, Bill Levitt, American dreams took flight. He built affordable homes for former GI Joes and their sweethearts and placed on the map in New York and Pennsylvania and elsewhere a paradise come true.
Here was a place you could call home for a hundred-dollar down payment and a mortgage willingly signed. Here moms and dads tried as best they could to duplicate what Jim and Margaret Anderson demonstrated on a black-and-white 19-inch fantasy screen.
But, in Levittown, there were no linen napkins, no heels or earrings, no golf clubs and no jacket and tie. It was a blue collar imitation of the good life.
And it worked.
Kids pedaled their banana-bike seats to find adventure and possibly a pick-up game until the street lights came on (the customary and universally accepted curfew). There were community swimming pools in the summer to dive into after mowing your neighbor’s yard and hot chocolate with marshmallows in the winter at the corner drug store after shoveling off the snow from countless driveways on your block and pocketing a dollar or two from each in the bargain. The schools were beyond exemplary, both private and public.
You trusted everybody. Even the cops who saw you were doing something wrong brought you back to you parent’s house instead of to the station. They knew the best discipline was to be found at home.
The churches and synagogues were full on weekends. It was standing room only – even during the hottest days of the summer when there was no air conditioning. That’s simply the way it was. People were faith-filled, self-reliant, God-fearing, and patriotic.
And, then, everything changed.
Vietnam, civil rights, women’s liberation, college campuses in mayhem, cities burning out of control, Vatican II, the end of the Latin Mass, a phenomenal and unprecedented exodus from religious vows, no-fault divorce, birth control, the Sexual Revolution, rampant drug use, R-rated movies, mini-skirts, bra burners, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert F. Kennedy, Johnson’s Great Society, long hair, flower girls, sit-ins, Chicago, Woodstock, sexual abuse, Watergate, Nixon, and all during a never ending Cold War with the threat of nuclear annihilation at any given moment.
And that’s just in the span of a decade-and-a-half. How – I mean how did we really manage to survive?
This wasn’t Father Knows Best anymore.
How could Mr. Anderson possibly advise Bud about this? How could Mrs. Anderson, with sensible shoes, caution her daughters amidst this kind of juggernaut?
More importantly, how did dad feel about all this?
He’d seen suffering on a scale we would never know – could never appreciate because it didn’t happen to us: the Great Depression, poverty, World War, The Holocaust, Soviet aggression, Communist Chinese waving little red books and the massacre of hundreds of millions. Even entire countries were obliterated from the map in Europe in one fell swoop, seemingly, without a second thought.
The Socratic Method
And there he was sitting at the kitchen table in our simple home in Levittown with a quart of Ballantine Ale and a cigar in his mouth. There were, spread out on the table, potato chips, a box of Cheez-it, and an array of newspapers and periodicals from across the nation, especially Catholic publications, and puzzles, always puzzles. In addition, a compact radio with an antenna that stretched to the sky and honed in on every station that broadcasted quality stuff: like good jazz, talk shows (way before the age of Rush Limbaugh), and sports games from Boston to New York to Chicago and beyond.
This was dad’s world. The ladder-backed chair was his throne and the kitchen was his castle.
And he asked questions.
You’d walk in the front door and see dad at the table holding court with only himself, his radio, and his papers. The questions he asked were, at first, innocent enough: “how was your day, son?” Or, “how did work go today?” There was no reason to panic because maybe you had a joint or a beer or two or a dozen. He simply wanted to know how you were. There were no lectures or preaching. There was not the slightest idea that came into your mind of some kind of threat.
If you brought friends over to the house, well, the more the merrier. They loved to talk to dad about, well, just about everything. From sports to politics. But, he sincerely wanted to know how you were. How was your life going during the madness that was happening all around the world and in our own individual existence?
And, then he would pick his baseball cap up and scratch his head. Whether this was because he didn’t like our answers or because he truly didn’t know himself what to think about things I don’t know. Although, in my heart, I think he knew more than he let on.
He was worried. You could see it in his blue eyes.
He had seen things we didn’t. But he never mentioned that.
He knew the right kind of questions to ask. And through these questions, like Socrates, he would lead us in the right direction. Possibly into something that we hadn’t realized before. It was so subtle you didn’t recognize it was happening. But, it did happen and then you started to ask yourself questions outside the box and answer them in truth, despite the helter-skelter going on in the world.
He would – no, he demanded you to think by his questions.
Thinking is hard. It requires the effort to confront yourself to face new challenges. I think, finally, that is what my father was meaning for me to do all along.
It worked. And, to this day, I question everything. I think about the past, the present, and what could possibly happen in the future. Not just in my life, but in the lives of my children and my grandchild.
Thanks, dad. Lesson well learned and Happy Father’s Day.