Innocence is a state perceived only after it is gone; and mine now seems a mirror image of the nation itselfor at least of the dominant culture, playing its indolent game of lawn tennis across a darkening sky. In those last years of latency, my pleasures remained pensive or interior: fishing with my dad, climbing trees with my sister to our fort (in actuality, a neighbor's forbidden flat topped garage roof), where we read and ate pimiento-cheese or butter-and-sugar sandwiches and presumed to defend our secret bivouac. In teaching me casino, a card game based on memory and sums, my father had cultivated what would be a lifelong love of numbers; for years, I feigned interest in his venerated stock pages, both to please him and to prove that I understood fractions. Having mastered these rudiments of math, I dove headlong into the elegance of algebraa place of labyrinthine and serene precision in an increasingly uncertain world. I remember feeling an easy relief when I got to binomial theorems and x-factors: Algebra's arched perfection was a buttress of clarity for a girl whose showiest asset was her mind. I was short, taciturn, and thoughtful; I ran for class treasurer instead of the deeply coveted post of cheerleader. And if math wasn't exactly cool, knowing how to pass it was. My first education in the casual cruelty of girls came when a reigning cheerleader invited me to her house to spend the night, only to ask me, without flinching, to finish her algebra homework before I left.
Throughout childhood's march, this was the position I would holdthe kid who read too much, talked too little, cried inconsolably over novels even as I maintained a steady grip on my own uneventful life. And then, to my parents' awe and terror, the changes of puberty threw me into adolescence like a bull rider out of a gate. The year I turned fourteen, I grew four inches, got breasts and contact lenses almost in the same week. I started rolling my eyes at the idiocies of Latin Club and Student Council. Outfitted with a supply of Marlborosthey were twenty-five cents a packI began hanging out at the local drive-in burger joint, slouched in the shotgun seat of a friend's Mustang and looking for action, listening to teenage wipeouts on the radio. The old 45-rpms my sister and I had worn nearly through, from "Get a Job" to "The Twist," had been replaced by the Beatles, who had stormed The Ed Sullivan Show a year earlier; now it was the sleepy, syrupy sounds of the Four Seasons and the Association we heard, about to be rendered impotent by the marvelously dirty lyrics of "Gloria," "Louie Louie," and the Rolling Stones.
What was happening to me, of course, was taking place all over America, but that in itself was a marvel: Radio and TV were creating a mass culture, and my rebellion dovetailed with one of the great cultural upheavals in modern history. Television's response to the Kennedy assassination had proved how a country could be soldered together by the collaborative enterprise of myth and machine: that technology could transform history simply by recording it. The airwaves that delivered rock 'n' roll piped in its language of sedition to every urban alley and backwoods lane from sea to shining sea, and the listeners waiting there responded with the frenzy of a mob outside the Bastille. If Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" had told us how to make love in the green grass behind the stadium, then the Stones' bump and- grind bass gave us the final permission for those hormonal outrages, and Janis Joplin told us how to scream. For decades, English teachers had been trying to impart the hidden glories of theme and symbol to their unwitting students. Now we were curled up in bed at night with transistor radios to our ears, listening to one of the great antiheroes of popular culture, Wolfman Jack, instruct us in the subversive narrative of rock 'n' roll. Now we were meeting metaphor head-on in the undeniable poetry of John Lennon and Bob Dylan; Paul Revere's hokey descendant, poised to foretell another revolution, had taken acid before his midnight ride. And now, when Country Joe McDonald told us we were all fixin' to die, he made it sound like an anthem instead of a eulogy.
Excerpted from A Strong West Wind by Gail Caldwell Copyright © 2006 by Gail Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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