Levittown: The Baby Boomer Story, Part 3
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.