IN 1964, I went to the New York World's Fair. I was 10 years
old. I don't have many memories of the trip. But I do remember sitting down to eat one evening, exhausted, in a German beer garden next to a fountain. And I remember a giant sphere of a sculpture I knew was supposed to represent the world. My clearest memories, however, are of the General Motors exhibit.
In the afterglow of Camelot, the sense that history was, more than anything else, the story of progress toward a RodCavanaughbetter future pervaded everything I knew. I grew up with science fiction novels about glorious futures. I wanted to be a scientist to help blaze the way. I knew the names of all the astronauts. I faked illnesses to stay home from school in order to watch all the launches in the space program, for nothing epitomized the future better than it did. I memorized volumes of data about the moon and all the planets in order to be ready to go when the opportunity came, as it surely would for those of us who were children in the '60s.
I was in love with the future. It seemed like such an exciting and happy place.
The GM exhibit proclaimed the future. In my 10-year-old mind it was the future. Little futuristic monorails took us through dark tunnels with models of future cities and flying cars, colonies on the moon and futuristic scenes of everyday life full of marvelous inventions, all glowing splendidly under futuristic ultraviolet light.
The GM exhibit was a temple for future-worship. And being children of progress, we all kowtowed on cue.
A subtle seduction (though it was probably intended; in fact, probably the point) took place in my vulnerable little mind that day: GM and a bold, better future became inextricably linked.
Today's headlines about massive layoffs and plant closings at GM are only the latest suggestions that the future may not be as good as the past. Poll after poll shows that fewer and fewer
Americans believe the future holds better things for them. The notion that history is progress, a notion with us since at least the dawn of the industrial age, is dying.
Until now, through all the bad news, I have managed to hold the belief somewhere deep inside me that the future will be better -- if not in the near future, then in a future just a little more distant. I never believed that what was good for GM was necessarily good for America, but to me GM and the future are intimately connected.
People lose faith in things for all kinds of reasons, and now that GM has stumbled, I can feel that my confidence in the future has been disturbed in some deep, sub-rational way. I don't know exactly how this emotional shift will affect me, but I'm sure I'll feel it when I try to decide whether to buy a new car or squeeze another year out of my old one, or to buy a house now or rent for a little longer, or to take a vacation in some exotic place or stay close to home.
In my 10-year-old heart I still know the future will be better than the present, at least someday. But it may not be until long after my ashes have been spread by the winds. So I've finally taken my checkbook away from my heart. For as I fret about the tenuous nature of my job, and consider the bleak prospects of finding another should I lose it, these decisions seem a lot less whimsical than they used to. And after all, 10-year-olds are easily seduced by whimsy.
Rod Cavanaugh lives, writes and dreams about the future in the 1/2 Philadelphia area.