Posted by: johnhourihan | August 2, 2012

The real generation gap

When I start wondering if we were smarter kids than today’s crop, I often think of August 1957.
My father, my younger brother, older sister and I stepped off the bus onto a Phoenix, Arizona sidewalk. He ushered us quickly out of the heat and the diesel smell of the street.
We stepped into a hallway and were engulfed by the heavy swelter of an August dead zone in a stifling hotel room above the Greyhound station. My brother had asthma, and this is what you did for that particular affliction back then.
The four of us were the first wave of our family to bus across the country from Boston to the desert.
I didn’t know it at 10, but I was about to acquire knowledge that would become part of my being for the rest of my life. It had to do with strength.
This is how children learned back then, I guess.
On the landing at the top of the unlit, narrow stairway was a row of heavy wooden doors.
I peeked around my father’s leg as he opened our room and winced. The room was dark, with a single round light clutching the center of a smoke-stained uremic ceiling.
Across the room was a pair of painted-shut windows, half-shaded with green canvas but curtainless, looking down like tired eyes onto the baked and bustling street.
We pushed the suitcases inside, and I flopped on the bed, exhausted from four days and three nights in a SceniCruiser with an erratic air conditioner.
I stunk and my hair hurt.
I rolled onto my side in the center of the bed and inspected the room. Beside me, dust floated in the sunlight from the two windows. They were huge and took up most of the wall except that they were separated by a useless hot water radiator.  On the end wall was a squat, dark brown dresser with a dirty mirror, next to it was a sink with two faucets, one hot, one cold, and next to that was a black wastebasket with a cattle-drive scene painted in the center of a circular lariat.
The door was in the far end of the next wall, and beside it was a wooden roll-top desk with a green-shaded desk lamp.
Next to me was the second bed. Beneath the pilled and yellowed bedspreads were pillows
with no cases.
My father left us sprawled on the beds. “I’ll be back,” he said and locked the door softly.
We had no trouble sleeping even in the crushing dry, oven-like heat.
When he got back, he told Diane to put on some clean clothes. They left again, and when they returned she had a job as a waitress at the Greyhound station luncheonette, and he had an interview as produce manager at a Safeway market.
They also had food, which they emptied into the middle drawer of the bureau. There was mustard and bologna and bread, some apples and nectarines, aspirin for my nagging toothache, and four boxes of Cracker Jack.
That night I woke around 10. The pain was digging down through one of my back teeth into my jaw. It was worst toothache I had ever had. The only thing that calmed the drilling pain was to swish the warm metallic water from the tap around in my mouth, and it only worked for about 15 minutes each time.
“Jocko, we can’t see a dentist until tomorrow morning, you’re just going to have to tough it out.”
Trying to keep my mind off the pain he told stories of taking the train in the 30s out to California to work the Contadina tomato fields and send money home, and he told tall tales about the hobos he met along the way.
He sang The Big Rock Candy Mountain over and over again, and recalled the history of Woody Guthrie until finally around 3 a.m. I told him, “Dad, go to bed. I can take care of this myself. You gotta get a job tomorrow. We’re running out of baloney, and the fruit is gonna go bad.”

He laughed.
He had come here with half his family, no place to stay, little money and no job. It must have taken courage. And now he was going to put off his job interview at Safeway to get me to the dentist in the morning.
The least I could do is take care of my own tooth tonight.
So when I think of how today’s kids might not be the same caliber as we were, I think of what I learned in that smothering hotel room.
I learned that you should never keep nectarines in a warm bureau drawer in a hotel room in the desert in August. They rot.
What did you expect — deep wisdom? I was ten years old.
Kids aren’t real deep, then or now. They haven’t really changed all that much.
But I do think the grown-ups were a bit stronger in spirit than we are.
What do you think?



  1. I know one today adult whos spirit is as strong as any from any era in time. I read his writings often in hopes of adding a bit of something to my own.

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