I grew up in Mt. Prospect, Ill., a suburb northwest of Chicago. When I was a kid, it seemed the city was a long way off, another world. But when I went back for a recent visit, it only took us about 30 minutes to drive from my son's apartment on Chicago's north side to my old front door on – I kid you not – a street called Memory Lane.
My wife and son had never seen the place where I was raised. I'm not sure why we put the trip off for such a long time; we've often visited Chicago over the years, my son even went to college there. It would have been easy. But other things grabbed our attention and, besides, when it came right down to it, I couldn't think of anything we could actually do in Mt. Prospect.
I remember a conversation I had with a good high school buddy, Paul Lembesis, one night when we were about to graduate. The two of us were walking the typically quiet streets around my neighborhood. Paul observed that Mt. Prospect was a great place to grow up, but didn't really offer anything to hold us there.
A lot of time has passed since then. My son not only graduated from high school, he graduated from college. Meanwhile, my parents, the people who brought me up in that house on Memory Lane, have moved on. They sold the place almost 40 years ago. Now they're looking after each other, valiantly contending with the unforgiving indignities that, all too often, attend the end of life in America.
I suspect my parents are the reason why I finally wanted to make the trip to Mt. Prospect. I wanted to think of them the way they were in those days. And I wanted my family to understand something about them that maybe couldn't be grasped in any other way.
When my parents bought that house in 1950, there was a cornfield at the end of the street. The real estate agent who sold them the place gestured toward the sun as it set over those rows of corn and said, "It'll be like this forever!"
That, of course, was bunk. By the time I was 10, the cornfield had been turned into athletic fields for the high school Paul and I and thousands like us would attend.
It was the Baby Boom. The guys who served in World War II had come home, gotten married and started families. They moved to places like Mt. Prospect, turning it from a small farming town along a set of railway tracks into a Chicago bedroom community – a place dedicated to raising kids.
Raising kids is what I think of when I hear people talk about "the Greatest Generation." As important as their service was in wartime, that generation's commitment to their kids' quality of life may have been even greater.
In many ways it was a massive improvisation. Nothing like it had ever been tried. Not only did these new veterans create communities for kids, they equipped these places with state-of-the-art schools, YMCAs, public swimming pools and ice rinks, scout troops, Little Leagues and more. Some even say the very idea of being a "teenager" took hold at this time, as did the expectation that everyone should go to college, nurtured by our parents' unprecedented postwar experience of higher education thanks to the tax-supported G.I. Bill.
If this sounds like a kind of utopia, it wasn't. Although my dad made a point of regularly playing catch with me after driving back from his job in the city, too many fathers were absent for large chunks of time. Too many moms suffered from undiagnosed depression. And the rage to conform – think of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate – could be soul destroying.
Still, as I drove by the blocks of tidy single family homes in Mt. Prospect, it was hard not to feel that for all its flaws, this place had succeeded in making something that's too rare in America: a culture. Although part of Cook County, Mt. Prospect was a politically conservative place when I was growing up. Barry Goldwater – trounced almost everywhere else during the 1964 presidential election – carried it with ease.
Yet this conservatism didn't keep its people from building and sustaining an outstanding public school system. The quality of the schools made a shared sense of aspiration palpable. Kids really did come before politics and, while I am somewhat sorry to say it, this is probably because we pretty much looked the same and came from similarly striving homes.
What strikes me now is how such an extraordinary accomplishment could, on the surface, appear so ordinary – and how easily it could be taken for granted.
I was lucky to have grown up where I did. Although I'll never live there again, I'm glad to be reminded that it's closer than I thought.