When Tom Hayden was 17, he wrote his swan song editorial for the Daily Smirker (rhymes with worker) back at Royal Oak High School in Detroit, Michigan, on the overcrowding of public schools. Bland as the body of the editorial was, Hayden employed a bold-faced, big-letter beginning for each paragraph that altogether spelled out his vertical farewell to high school journalism. “Go to Hell,” it read down the page. With petulant outrage, the high-school administration punished Hayden by holding up his academic awards for nearly a year. Of such small beginnings, though, an era of protest was being created in the middle and late Fifties. Even at Royal Oak, it was impossible to guess that America was coming out of the five-and-dime era into a boxcar epic with consequences still unimaginable.
Not that Hayden had any real inkling of it either. He was the bookish, only child of an Irish-American family who spent part of his childhood in San Diego where his father was stationed with the Navy. He used to squash tin cans flat as a boyhood contribution to the war effort and watch the rim of the Pacific for a sign of sinister masts that might someday bring an invasion fleet of the murderous enemy. When the war was over, and the family returned to Detroit, young Tom took to school with an impish curiosity and a quick mind that made him at once popular among his classmates and a source of mild exasperation for his teachers.
He was part of the biggest baby boom the world had ever seen, all born out of a wartime passion that pumped kids out of maternity wards faster than factories could put out Jeeps. By 1950, every Saturday afternoon the 40-cartoon festivals that came on in neighborhood theaters all over America looked like a children’s crusade. In America, at least, what the kids of that generation had of their individuality was always matched by some formidable experiences they shared in common.
When the air raid came — was that two short blasts or four long ones? — you got away from the windows, crouched down under your desk with your hands covering the back of your neck and waited to be disintegrated. And while we waited for what everybody insisted on calling the “next war,” we got older in the biggest bash of abundance since the Romans — a fact alarming enough in itself to the amateur historians who kept warning us about what all that decadence did to Rome. It had not nearly so much to do with growing up alienated as it did with growing up prepared for whatever that vague disaster was that our parents kept promising.