I suppose I should warn you at the outset. This is not a sweeping, epic tale. Even so, if you want to understand your own times, you must understand mine.
You must feel the hope and amazement of those years. Physics and chemistry, medicine and engineering were breaking through old boundaries. Anything seemed possible — the end of ignorance, the end of disease, the end of poverty. There was every reason to think that tomorrow would be better than today. And the day after that? Better yet!
In the White House, there was a professor-president — a man of intelligence and principle, elected to clean up the corruption that had flourished in the muck of politics for so long. The poor were lifted up and the proud brought down as Progressives reined in the power of Big Money.
In the cities, skyscrapers shredded clouds. Trucks and automobiles were crowding out horse-drawn cabs and drays in the boulevards below. The pavement was clean: no stinking piles of dung, no buzz of flies. Public health and public schools were beating back the darkness.
In the homes of the middle class, our lives ticked along like clocks, well-regulated and precise. We had electric lights, electric toasters, electric fans. On Sundays, we studied newspaper advertisements for vacuum cleaners, wringer-washers, radios and automobiles. Our bathrooms were clean, modern, indoors. We believed that good nutrition and good moral hygiene would make us healthy, wealthy and wise.
The Great War and the Great Influenza fell on our placid world almost without warning.
Imagine it: around the world, millions and millions and millions were vital and alive one day, slack-mouthed dead the next. Imagine people dying in such numbers, they had to be buried in mass graves dug with steam shovels — dying not of some ancient plague or in some far-away land, but dying here and now.
Imagine knowing that nothing could ensure your survival. Imagine that you know this not in theory, not from reading about it in books, but from how it feels to lift your foot high and step wide over a corpse.
What would you do?
I’ll tell you what we did. We boozed and screwed like there was no tomorrow. We made our own fun and our own gin, drinking lakes of the stuff, drinking until we could Charleston on the graves. We shed encumbrances and avoided entanglements. We were wiseacres and suicides. We were tough cookies, slim customers, swell guys and real dolls. Pooh, pooh, skiddoo! Drink up. The night is young!
“I don’t want children,” said one celebrated writer after an abortion. “We’d have nothing in common. Children don’t drink.”
Does such callousness shock you? I imagine it does but by that time, death had become so commonplace, so tedious… Well, mourning simply went out of style. Just between you and me? One can get awfully tired of the dead…