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January 30, 2009

People Conforming

Roy Meachum

As some readers recall, for the past several years I have worked on a book, a collection of memories from my colorful past. Recently I have written on the Eisenhower era. After two hitches in the Army, I started my civilian career on the general's first inauguration day. I was already married with child; future attorney Thomas Moore Meachum born in 1951.


The Academy Award nominated film, "Revolutionary Road," is set squarely in the 1950s when the Ike-ruled society demanded conformity. The movie depicts exactly how we were: the men wearing fedoras, square suits and colorless ties; the women in conservative hair-dos, head-conforming hats, modest dresses and stockings held up by girdles that certainly did not encourage sexual dalliances. Both genders smoked cigarettes seemingly constantly and generally took pride in how many martinis they could hold.


In Washington, fears of being taken as a communist or Red-lover drove a need for conformity even among non-government employees; they came on top of the pressure to be like everyone else that existed in post-Depression and post-World War II America.


After those truly life-altering experiences, men and women attempted to reconstruct normality. My elders might have known what it was, but my generation was still in school for Pearl Harbor, too young to recall how things were before every town accommodated "hobo jungles," we could only contribute a make-believe normalcy.


Over and over, director Sam Mendes' cameras capture how regimented we were in scenes of crowds that, from a short distance, show business men strikingly alike. And that was the ideal. It was the age of the ordinary man who insisted his wife be no different.


Given the GI Bill, my male contemporaries were prepared to dream any future and fashion a life from their dreams; many did. At least the whites. Blacks received bleak comfort from the United States Supreme Court's striking down segregation.


Converting legal pronouncements into reality demanded sacrifices, including deaths, and Blacks and Whites coming together. The Civil Rights movement began in the middle of "Revolutionary Road's" decade. In 1955, Rosa Parks sparked the movement by refusing to move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. Much of America, White and Black, paid little attention until Martin Luther King, Jr., "dreamed" on Washington's Mall and that was eight years later.


Dr. King's dream chalked up fulfilled only weeks ago when Barack Obama moved into the highest office in the land; yet to get there is a woman. Some of us couldn't fall in step with Hillary Clinton's try for the presidency, chiefly because of her husband. Millions women did.


For all their accomplishments, distaff Americans still live under misunderstandings, not invented in the non-revolutionary decade but strongly reinforced mainly because the society yearned for restoration to an ideal that never existed.


In history, women served chiefly as vassals for men who were rarely really stronger. The notion dates from the Stone Age when men were the hunters and warriors and most women stayed out of the line of fire. They were the real protectors of children and guardians of what passed then for civilization. They've maintained those roles ever since. But more. At any given moment, if you listen carefully, glass ceilings are breaking all over the place.


In the Eisenhower decade, the high priests and priestesses of setting the standard were the older generations. Maybe because having been raised prior to the Depression, they wanted men earnest and hard working, strong-jawed and entirely responsible for the families, especially after the babies started coming. And this they commanded by such comments as "Not pregnant yet?"


The question raised many times became a statement of doubt cast on the husband's manhood and the wife's womanhood. Of course, in the overwhelming number of situations, motherhood meant staying home, abandoning the hope of careers. They generally were force to abandon the probability of adult conversations.


The mother of my children described her condition as "cabin fever." She was an astonishingly intelligent human being who got into Duke when the university rejected many more females than it accepted. She came out with a hard-earned degree in economics, not a snore-through subject. When she wound up confined to the nursery, she suffered. But that's how times were for her mother and her grandmother and on back.


In "Revolutionary Road," Kate Winslet tries to break through the barriers, bringing on ridicule and scoffing; Sam Mendes is the movie's director. Miserable in his job that barely recognizes his humanity, husband Leonard di Caprio enthusiastically agrees to move to Paris and find a life not so conforming, living up to others' standards.


How does the story turn out? I cannot say. The film was nominated for the Best Picture in next month's Academy Awards. It runs third nationally at the box office. But I can't urge readers rush to buy tickets.


Some folks enjoy seeing other people tear each other and their lives apart. I'm not among them.


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