To have and to hold forever

August 24, 1994|By Jack L. Levin

AMONG THE GUESTS at a recent celebration of our 60th wedding anniversary was a young couple planning to be married soon. Each was a college graduate from an upper middle-class family.

"Tell us the secret of your success in marriage," said the groom-to-be, half jokingly.

"Yes," added the bride-to-be. "We don't want to be one of the every two marriages that break up today."

My wife and I looked at each other, shaking our heads. "I'm afraid you couldn't possibly understand," I said.

How could we explain the 1930s to today's young people?

How to communicate to kids who have never wanted anything they didn't get almost instantly, what it meant to scrimp and save for it for years and often never get it; what a difference that made in one's perception of the value of the things; what it meant to forgo cherished dreams like a college education because the family breadwinner had been long unemployed; what it meant to have to adapt, to be flexible, to make do, to compromise in an uncompromising world?

How could they comprehend a world in which people walked miles to save five cents carfare, skipped meals and rent payments, wore clothing to shreds and shoes until holes appeared on the soles, and saw belongings repossessed because of an inability to keep up installments or dumped onto the street when rent was long overdue?

How could they imagine this great nation of hope and abundance in 1933, when we decided to marry? When unemployment reached 12,800,000 -- more than a fourth of the civilian labor force; more than a quarter million homes were foreclosed, and financially ruined people were jumping out of windows in skyscrapers.

How could we explain the bonding that resulted from interdependence and shared sacrifice instead of just time spent together at a show or baseball game, bonding like metal that must be melted in order to meld?

Most impossible to convey to our young friends would have been our eager participation in the intellectual ferment of the early '30's.

It was not just socializing, but a hunger for social action that drew us to the Saturday night soirees at 2110 East Pratt St. Our host/teacher/provocateur was Baltimore's and New York's renowned radical socialist, V. F. Calverton (real name George Goetz), the publisher-editor of Modern Quarterly.

It was not abstract intellectualizing but intense personal identification with some of the passionate prescriptions for a better life that swirled about that book-lined, smoke-filled room.

How could young people who never had any reason to want to change their comfortable world understand what Saturday night Calverton's meant to us? What hope it gave us to sit at the feet of such mighty critics of the status quo as A.J. Muste, Clarence Darrow, Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Norman Thomas, labor leaders like Louis Budenz, black intellectuals like Alain Locke and Charles S. Johnson, and other challengers of those we blamed for the bleakness of our young lives?

How could young moderns for whom Saturday night means an expensive show, know the thrill of chipping in our quarter for the whiskey and exploring wild ideas with other spell-bound locals like Louis Azrael, Harry Bard, Una Corbett, Elmer Sebastian, our hometown Trotskyite, Bessie Peretz, and Joe Buchoff who provided quips for comic relief?

To us, there was never a show more stimulating and encouraging than V. F. Calverton, student and teacher of psychology, anthropology, sexology, sociology and government.

We were seekers of the truth that would change our lives, give them meaning and purpose, something more than the treadmill of eking out a meager livelihood. We sought "tikkun olam," to improve the world, and we reveled in the tempting choices served up at Calverton's.

But we never joined any of the radical groups that belabored each other, each convinced that its way was the only way. We were, however, stimulated by the explosion of ideas and visions of a better future to become members and, later, leaders of such social justice groups as the Americans for Democratic Action, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Congress, the Baltimore Jewish Council and other progressive and charitable groups.

Ours was indeed another world from that of the young couple. Ours was a world in which "givens" were contested. Civil rights and civil liberties could not be taken for granted but had to be fought for.

Social upheavals, revolutions and wars were not far-off affairs but close to home, disrupting our lives, demanding adjustment, compromise and sacrifice.

My wife and I had spent almost a half century together before the onslaught of the "me generation" in which our questioners had grown up. We have learned the joy of sometimes placing others' needs before our own, and losing instead of winning an occasional argument.

"Well," said the groom to be, still waiting. "Any words of wisdom?"

"Yes," I said. "When you promise to share, to love and cherish each other -- make sure you mean it, no matter what."

Jack L. Levin writes from Baltimore.

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