Over the few weeks, for a three-part series on the history of the baby boomer generation, The Huffington Post interviewed four men and women in their early 60s who grew up together in "America's first suburb," Levittown, N.Y.
In the first installment, they talked about coming of age in a bygone era of innocence and venturing out into the wider world in the days of "free love," drugs and Vietnam. For last week's segment, they shared their memories of the turbulent '70s. And for this week's entry, the last of the series, they'll bring us up to date with stories from the past three decades.
In some ways, a chronicle of those years may seem to promise the least drama of the three segments. Yet, if the '60s and '70s were times of change, so were the more recent decades -- at least in the lives the four people interviewed for this series. Claudia Albers Miller split with her husband, became a nurse, found a new partner and recently left nursing to pursue a lifelong passion for gem collecting. Mindy Snyder, who spent her 20s in Manhattan, took a trip to Europe, met a man in Amsterdam, started a family and eventually picked up roots once more and moved back to Long Island. Steve Bergsman, a high-school football star and college anti-war protester, became a father, a journalist and, in the last eight years, a prolific author of nonfiction books (including a memoir of growing up in Levittown). And Bonnie Spence Burke adopted a fourth child at the age of 55 and now spends her weekends coaching his soccer team.
For these graduates of Island Trees High School, as for so many people of their generation, the landscape of middle-age life looks very different than it did for their parents. Of the four people interviewed, none have retired or are considering retirement. Instead, they are starting new careers and even families at an age when their parents may have been settling down for quiet lives of golf and canasta.
At the same time, the country's economic troubles and the sheer size of the baby boomer generation mean that the sort of leisurely life their parents may have enjoyed isn't necessarily an option. Claudia, for example, recently had to support her adult son when he was laid off from his job at a brokerage firm.
Either way, being in your 60s means something different today than it did when the graduates of Levittown High School lowered a needle into the groove of a record and first heard Paul McCartney ponder, "Doing the garden, digging the weeds, who could ask for more?" Levittown's children are asking for much more than a little patch of land out back or a chair by the fireside. They're embarking on a mission often associated with people in their 20s and 30s: looking for fulfillment in their work and relationships -- and sometimes seeking that happiness in new careers and partners.
There's an obvious metaphor for the dramatic changes they've experienced, and to appreciate it, you only need to ride the Long Island Railroad out to Hicksville and take a taxi to Levittown and walk around. When the town was built in the late 1940s to accommodate the droves of young men coming home from the war, each house looked exactly like the one next to it, and over the next few decades Levittown became the ultimate symbol of the supposed dullness and conformity of suburbia. Yet to see the town now, you would never know that the houses once looked alike. They are white and navy and cedar-sided, and they've sprouted all sort of additions and flourishes. Over time, as the families who lived in them renovated and remodeled them, they each developed their own identities. Well, so did the children of those families, who continue to grow and change.
Part III: "The Night Is Still Young"
Claudia: When my husband and I split we were in Liberty, N.Y., with two kids at that time. I was probably like 32, maybe. He went his way and I went mine. I went to school and I got my license and as soon I got my RN license I headed west. It was basically because he said he didn't believe that I could do it. So I said, "Screw you."
Steve: The first year I was in Arizona, I started freelancing for the local newspaper and then I got my first full-time job. This was just before the Reagan years and there was a lot of talk about how there was sort of an anti-tax world out there, and the magazine I worked for was all about taxes. After they hired me I renamed it Taxing Times.
Bonnie: When Dad left Mom things started to fall apart for me. I would say the '80s were the most painful time. The whole family eroded, but instead of collapsing and sitting there crying, I put myself back through school around my children's school schedule -- after I was all done with them and they were in bed for the night, that's when I would study and write my papers.
Mindy: In the '80s everything started to change radically. The '70s was a very slow change, and then Reagan started with his trickle down thing and women had to get in there and make money. I started thinking maybe I should start a career. So I went back to school in Holland and got a degree so I could own a café. I passed in flying colors and I was so proud of myself, but while I was going to school I got pregnant, so the bar thing kind of went by the wayside.
Claudia: I moved out here to San Diego to where my parents were because I figured my daughter needed a father figure. By then my son had left -- he wanted to live with his father. He was maybe around fifteen or sixteen. He wanted to live with his dad and I knew if I said no and he didn't want to live with me he'd make my life miserable.
Steve: I was at the Arizona Business Gazette 'til the early 80s and then I went out on my own as a freelance journalist. I was writing for anyone who would hire me.
I had this friend who was freelancing for Cosmopolitan, I think it was. I wasn't sure what to write for them -- I couldn't write about women's orgasms or anything like that -- but they were doing a series on women in unusual jobs, and somehow I knew of this woman who was an attorney in Los Angeles and she had been doing some work with the gangs. So I go out to Los Angeles and she takes me into the ghetto areas and I'm interviewing people and I get this great story about the Crips and the Bloods, and then Cosmo decided not to run the story and within a year the whole Crips and Bloods thing was all over the newspapers. It was a great story, but they never ran it. I was really churning out great business stories but every time I tried to do something unusual it sort of fell apart on me.
Claudia: When I came out here I didn't have any friends or anything. I joined a dinner club, where you get together once a week and go to restaurants around town and it was all singles in the group. We would go out to clubs -- which are not like they are now -- and I met a few people, but nobody hit the right button, let's put it that way. You gotta kiss a lot of frogs so to speak.
Mindy: I had my first child, who unfortunately died after two days. She had a brain injury. I was frightened. I thought maybe you don't need to be a mother, but I grew up with a grandmother telling me you gotta get married and have children.
Claudia: My daughter, she's handicapped. The big challenge was arguments, because if I argued with her she would go off the deep end, and the deep end means fighting and yelling and screaming, so I had to set boundaries.
We never went anywhere because as soon as she got tired or bored she had a so-called tantrum. We did very little socially. And that's probably why I didn't date much either.
Mindy: After my first child died, I was distraught. I couldn't find a good therapist in Holland. And it wasn't like I'd had a child for years and then she died, so I was supposed to buck up and go on to the next thing. My OB/GYN said, "Don't think about it and it will happen." So that's when I went back to school. And then I had my daughter.
Bonnie: The '80s were a period where my mom kind of lost her balance and I became my mother's protector and guide. She never really bounced back from my dad leaving her, and my sister never talked to them or me, so what's what I meant by the '80s were painful.
But for me it was a time to focus. My dad used to tell me, "When you're walking through hell, just don't stop moving." I worked two jobs and put myself through graduate school full-time and still tried to be there for my youngest daughter, and we actually graduated within a week from each other -- she graduated from high school and I graduated with a double master's.
Steve: In the '70s it was the first great age of pornography, and the only male star was a guy named John Holmes and John Holmes was renowned for the length of his appendage. So in the '80s, I go to Los Angeles a number of times, and I interviewed all the old porn stars from the '70. I had this great story about John Holmes and nobody wanted it, and then one day a Rolling Stone writer calls me up and says he'd like to do a story on John Holmes, but John Holmes' wife won't talk to him because she'll only talk to me, so the guy comes to Phoenix and we talk and I wasn't getting this stuff published and I say, "Well, you can use what I have, and you can talk to John Holmes' wife, all I ask for is credit." So he does this huge story in Rolling Stone, says "fuck you" to me and I got zero for it. I didn't even get credit. And I think that Rolling Stone piece was the basis of the story of "Boogie Nights."
[Mike Sager, who wrote "The Devil And John Holmes" for Rolling Stone, says he has no recollection of meeting Bergsman or going to Arizona, and in any case, didn't get paid for "Boogie Nights."]
Mindy: I put my daughter through school, and I got a job with a Dutch airline, because I spoke fluent Dutch. But the economy was bad in Holland and we couldn't buy a house and I couldn't stay behind, so... a new adventure. Things were good for the first two years in Florida until I got very homesick and my father got ill and I couldn't deal with being so far away and not being able to go back and forth, so I packed up and sold the house that I just built and started life all over again.
Claudia: I met my significant other 12 years ago on Matchmaker.com. Internet dating was a process where you do it for a month or so and you get fed up, and you go back on -- that's basically how it works. You get tired of meeting all these idiots and you get fed up and you try again.
A lot of guys are very into themselves here -- not like New Yorkers. Way back when in New York, if you go out to a club a guy would buy you a drink. Out here in California a guy would want you to buy him a drink. I said I don't need that, because I come from the so-called old school.
Art bought me a drink and dinner at a place called Joe's Crab Shack. That's where we found out we had mutual friends, so we just kept talking and talking and had a good time. He's from Hicksville -- we grew up three miles from each other.
Steve: The '90s were a perfect time to be a writer. Magazines were thriving, newspapers were thriving. I was making a crazy six-figure income. Almost every day somebody needed something. There were some years when I was writing 120 stories a year.
I had to [pay for] bar mitzvahs and college, but I have to say, I was earning a pretty good living. Somewhere into the 2000s it all started to change.
Bonnie: In 2004, I adopted a little boy from the Ukraine who was part of the brain experiments there. He is my son and he is my heart and I'm now in private practice as a therapist helping people.
Claudia: When my daughter was 18, she moved into a group home. Now she's doing really good. She's an official licensed clown. My son has a brokerage license but he's not doing that because the economy is so bad, so he went into business with his buddy who does computer programs for dental offices. Before that he worked for a brokerage firm and he was laid off, and he came home for a few months and lived with us. You kind of lose some of your privacy but I knew we were helping him out in between the layoffs and everything, so you gotta do what you gotta do. You can't leave him out on the street. Some people could -- I can't.
Steve: Newspapers started to fail, afternoon papers disappeared. Papers got smaller. Then magazines started to fade away and then the Internet eventually killed off a lot of that. I had an opportunity around 2004 to write a book, so from 2005 to 2011 I wrote five books, and the first one, Maverick Real Estate Investing, was a real success -- at one point it went to 32 or 36 on Amazon. I'm hoping for the same thing with Growing Up Levittown, by the way.
[Click here to read an excerpt of Bergsman's Growing Up Levittown, in which he makes the case that Levittown was hardly the cauldron of conformity that it became in the popular imagination.]
Mindy: If I have too much time to be introspective, then I start trying to figure out the meaning of life and I don't figure out anything. That's why I need to be busy. I'm really looking forward now to getting into politics again.
I was involved with NAACP for a long time. I was involved in the Democratic Party here on Long Island. Now I wanna go down and march with the protesters. I grew up with the 99 percenters -- that's what Levittown was. Groups of blue- and white-collar people working together for everybody and it's not happening anymore -- and that's what happened when Reagan got into power.
Claudia: About five years ago, I went back to school. I had hurt my back and I couldn't do nursing anymore. I'm a graduate gemologist from the Gemology Institute of America. If people want to have a house party I'll bring the jewelry with me. I go to gem shows. One person I just met on a cruise has tanzanite that he's interested in having appraised, so I do that kind of thing. You give me a stone I can tell you what it is.
Bonnie: I've got a bunch of kids and I raised them my own, so I must have done something right to have the strength. And I even got an extra one. It was like, just when it was time to rest I got another one. And I'm his soccer coach.
And I'm a good soccer coach. They don't lose -- they win.
Steve: I was a freelance journalist and I was a father and I was a soccer dad. So those are the things you juggle. Not as exciting as tearing the world down, but it's still pretty exciting to have a couple of kids to bring up.
Bonnie: In the '70s, you would go walk with your children if the weather was nice, you would point out the birds and the stars and all that stuff, and even now at night, Gwin and I walk the dog and I point out the constellations to him. I want him to be able to see what's wonderful even in the dark, because life has its dark times for all of us -- it doesn't matter who you are.
Today I'm so proud of my daughters and who they are in the world. I taught them to be proud, honest, moral women and I taught them to survive in this crazy world, and I've got five great grandchildren and this little boy who I'm still getting another chance to look at the stars with -- how can you beat it?
The one thing that I would like to accomplish in my life (other than going to Rio di Janero and dancing in Carnival, and I'd love to see the Northern Lights): I would love to be loved once, by a healthy good man. I deserve that.
But I don't know, maybe I'm better on my own. My quest for honesty has been like trying to capture a cloud. Nobody has ever really given me total honesty the way I'm willing to give it to them. I'm not saying I never lied about having gotten something on sale when it really wasn't, but I'm talking about talking with someone heart to heart and soul to soul.
I'm writing for the local newspaper now, and as you know, when you go somewhere with a camera and a notepad you make a billion friends. There's a Halloween dance I'm covering -- and by the way, I'm Super Girl -- and I'm going to go and I'm going to cover the party and I'm going to talk to the people. And maybe I'll get lucky and the universe will send me back something wonderful.
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