Our Kids is a book written by the prominent Harvard sociologist Robert D. Putnam. I am somewhat familiar with Putnam as we attended the same high school around the same time. He graduated from Port Clinton High School the year before me. His fame rests greatly on an earlier book Bowling Alone—a book about the disintegration of traditional groups in contemporary America—in a sense, the death of fellowship and community and the birth of a deeper sense of alienation. On the Our Kids jacket it quotes the Sunday Times of London calling him “the most influential academic in the world.” That’s a powerful endorsement.
I bought Bowling Alone, and his book on religion, American Grace, about three years ago. I read parts of each book but had a hard time plowing fully thru tomes so greatly academic. The plethora of information made them difficult to digest. Our Kids was more approachable in that it tells stories about people—several of whom I knew.
Putnam’s main point is that the upward mobility available to the lower strata of American society in the 1950s and 60s has now evaporated. In that era young people surpassed their parents in education and income. Today, if you’re born poor or lower middle class you are likely to remain there. He highlights the growing alienation between the haves and the have-nots. Today, affluent kids don’t hang out with poor kids. That was not the case in a Ohio town of 6,500 (Port Clinton) in the 1950s and 60s. In that time and place the rich kids didn’t really know that their families were wealthy and the poor kids didn’t think of themselves as poor.
Five decades later several key industries and employers have closed and now Port Clinton appears to be just another town in the Rust Belt chock full of dreamless, hopeless addicted kids from single parent households. But on the other side of the tracks there are still a fortunate few. They are kids on the fast track to college—kids who’s parents enroll them in activities not available to the working poor or those on welfare. Many of those affluent families are not native to Port Clinton. One of Putnam’s main points is that in the 1950s many of the town’s adults took ownership of all the kids—they were “our kids.” That’s kind of painted with the broad brush of nostalgia but it does have some ring of truth nevertheless.
I think the “our kids” Putnam writes about were those who were popular, attractive, athletic or high academic achievers. I was none of those. The experience I and many others had of being “our kids” was that if you screwed up someone would sure as heck tell your parents. But I suppose that’s preferable to the almost total anonymity and lack of concern that the youth from the other side of the tracks experience today. They are no longer our kids, they are throw-away kids doomed to work at minimum wage jobs forever.
In 1958, my mother left Erie Ordnance Depot (EAD) and transferred her civil service clerk-typist position to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. She joined a number of other expats from the Port Clinton area. They were the vanguard of a migration that would peak two to three decades later as Standard Products closed and other area employers either closed or downsized. A few years after my mother left, EAD closed and parts of it were turned into an industrial park. And I suspect that today most of the industries of the industrial park have likely been farmed out to Asia.
I attended my junior year of high school in New Mexico, but I returned to PC for my senior year and lived with my father. The following year I returned to New Mexico for college. I was able to live at home and attend New Mexico State University very cheaply. My mother was a resident, so I was a resident. And so the last I resided in Port Clinton full-time was at the age of 17. However, I spent most summers there when I was in college and afterwards visited there annually for many years. Though it was a great place to visit for a few weeks every summer, it struck me as a terrible place to live full time.
The changes I saw in the area over time were disturbing. I hated seeing the oldest and most historic building in town, the Lake House, torn down and replaced with a gas station. It may have been somebody’s notion of progress but to me it was a desecration. Apparently none of PC’s wealthy or civic leaders made an attempt to save it, and also very gradually the view of the lake from Perry St was obstructed by condos. I also hated seeing the Standard Products manufacturing plant closed and shuttered, and hearing about the Matthews boat plant burning down. Standard had once employed over a thousand people, and Matthew’s Yacht’s was Port Clinton’s signature industry. In any event “progress” was all about money—-heritage and people’s lives mattered not. And from what I could tell, about 90% of Port Clinton’s best and brightest were relocating after college to locales with a future. That’s what Putnam did, that’s what I did, and that’s what many of our classmates did.
The prominent psychologist Carl Jung made a statement a century ago to the effect that psychological/emotional problems were at heart spiritual problems. My 40-year career as a psychotherapist confirms that observation. And on a similar note, I think that Putnam, along with most sociologists and political scientists, believe that societal problems are basically external problems—economic problems. In short, too few resources, unemployment, and reduced paychecks leading to social disintegration. However, echoing Jung, my thought is that society, our nation, (and places like Port Clinton) going to hell in a hand-basket is mostly a spiritual problem.
And Port Clinton’s spiritual malaise is just a microcosm of what’s wrong with our country today. We have become a fractured, dispirited nation of incredibly selfish people. The last we saw of us being a truly “united” states was for a short while after 9/11. My generation, and that of our parents—basically folks born in the first 45-years of the past century—grew up in a nation barely recognizable today. We are the children of Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation.” Our parents survived both the Great Depression of the 1930s and WWII—and so, in a sense, we did too. They had a Rosie-the-Riveter, grow a Victory Garden “can-do” spirit that is now long gone. Growing up, we heard about the two national traumas of the Depression and The War pretty much every day—and so not mere survival but striving to go beyond what they achieved was both an expectation and an actualization of their legacy.
It’s not hard to see where we’ve been. We have the metrics to show what we were; it’s much harder to measure the present while we are experiencing it and then extrapolate to the future. I can say our national malaise of reduced expectations is mostly spiritual, but it’s more difficult to prove. Nevertheless, as Putnam shows, church attendance is down and kids from “religious” families do tend to do better. Also, kids from intact, two-parent households tend to do better. Back in the 1950s having a divorced mom was a bit of an anomaly, and mildly disgraceful, today it’s where half of our kids reside. The notion that marriage was about personal happiness was not prevalent in the 1940s and earlier. You made your bed and you slept in it.
The bed that most slept in was likely in the same community where their parents had slept; that is no longer the case. Folks have lost their sense of belonging. As Putnam pointed out in Bowling Alone we have lost our roots, forgotten our sense of community and fellowship. I left Port Clinton, Putnam left Port Clinton and so did many of our classmates. I’ve lived in six other communities since PC and I’ve not really invested myself in any of them. I live there but it is not home. New people have moved into PC replacing us expats but for many it’s not their real home either. It’s mostly a pleasant lake-front place to commute from. Today, I live in Florida and myself and about 70% of “Floridians” are from somewhere else. I’ve lived at my present address 27 years and I barely know the names of half of the people on my street.
For me, landmarks in our spiritual/societal decline were Supreme Court decisions throwing prayer out of the schools (1962) and Roe v. Wade (1973) allowing abortion on demand. When one life is devalued, all life is devalued—why care about the kid from the other side of the tracks when society says a responsible mom should have aborted him. And those school prayers that almost no one listened to hurt absolutely no one, but doing away with them was an indicator of where were were headed and sent youth a subtle message about the irrelevance of a Divine Creator.
Another great societal leveler long gone is Selective Service—the military draft that myself and a whole generation dreaded. When it was done away with back in the 1970s most rejoiced—but in retrospect ending it was a mistake. The military was perhaps the only institution where every male draftee was equal. College grads and high school dropouts stood shoulder to shoulder and were branded maggots and scum by the drill sergeant.
In late June, after a 7 or 8 year absence I revisited Port Clinton. It was the longest I’d ever been away. Some things looked much the same as I’d remembered them and that was reassuring. I walked thru the Island House where my mother had last worked in 1951. The entrance with its display case and the lobby area looked much the same. The Stensen’s used to put fancy collectible dolls in the case. Now the display is historical—mostly about the War of 1812. There were some pics of interest in the lobby. One was of a half dozen New York Yankees sitting at a big round captain’s table in the bar area. My mother had told me about waiting on Joe DiMaggio’s table.
Across the street used to be Urb’s Cafe where my parents met back in the 1930s. There is still a bar in that spot but no longer named Urb’s. I walked down to the riverfront. The Portage was high and madly flowing out into the lake from the recent torrential rains. I’d never seen it so high or flowing so fast. In fact, just two days earlier the unusually high water plus a northeaster had flooded Perry Street. I took a few pics and a video to solidify my memory of PC’s downtown and lakefront. It was a gray overcast day like so many of my remembrance and the only sound in the video are the seagulls cawing.
I mourned my town having moved on to a sort of kitschy ticky tack that is someone’s idea of what tourists want. I couldn’t help feeling anything but deep nostalgia about the re-purposing of the Clinton Theater and Timblin’s Drug Store with its magnificent marble counter. And in the middle of town next to the Ottawa county court house was an empty city block where a year or two before three schools that I had attended had once sat. It gave me a sinking feeling. I had followed their demolition on Facebook, but still seeing it in person was a shock.
My hometown still exists—but mostly in my memory—relegated to the same neural dustbin as the lost collective American Dream that Putnam profiles so incisively.