When I’m 64…
Living Through the Age of Denial in America
By Tom Engelhardt
Send me a postcard, drop me a line,
Stating point of view.
Indicate precisely what you mean to say
Yours sincerely, Wasting Away.
— the Beatles, “When I’m 64”
I set foot, so to speak, on this planet on July 20, 1944, not perhaps the best day of the century. It was, in fact, the day of the failed German officers’ plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
My mother was a cartoonist. She was known in those years as “New York’s girl caricaturist,” or so she’s called in a newspaper ad I still have, part of a war-bond drive in which your sizeable bond purchase was to buy her sketch of you. She had, sometime in the months before my birth, traveled by train, alone, the breadth of a mobilized but still peaceable American continent to visit Hollywood on assignment for some magazine to sketch the stars. I still have, on my wall, a photo of her in that year on the “deck” of a “pirate ship” on a Hollywood lot drawing one of those gloriously handsome matinee idols. Since I was then inside her, this is not exactly part of my memory bank. But that photo does tell me that, like him, she, too, was worth a sketch.
Certainly, it was appropriate that she drew the card announcing my birth. There I am in that announcement, barely born and already caricatured, a boy baby in nothing but diapers – except that, on my head, I’m wearing my father’s dress military hat, the one I still have in the back of my closet, and, of course, I’m saluting. “A Big Hello — From Thomas Moore Engelhardt,” the card says. And thus was I officially recorded entering a world at war.
By then, my father, a major in the U.S. Army Air Corps and operations officer for the 1st Air Commando Group in Burma, had, I believe, been reassigned to the Pentagon. Normally a voluble man, for the rest of his life he remained remarkably silent on his wartime experiences.
I was, in other words, the late child of a late marriage. My father, who, just after Pearl Harbor, at age 35, volunteered for the military, was the sort of figure that the — on average — 26-year-old American soldiers of World War II would have referred to as “pops.”