The `Greene-ing' of America - circa 1964
When he was 17, Bob Greene was tormented by lost love, the fear of losing his place on the tennis team, the hassles of dating, getting his hair cut right, and wearing cool clothes. He was utterly vexed about grades, getting into college, borrowing his dad's car, and finding ways to stay out late without his parents' knowing. In the right hands, and with the aid of hindsight, could such a universal agenda of male juvenilia be the stuff of a best seller? Only if the right storyteller could remember all the truly telling details - names, faces, events. Enter the 1964 diary of the same Mr. Greene.
Master storyteller, Greene has been called a pundit for middle America for his Chicago Tribune column syndicated to over 200 newspapers, regular broadcasts for ABC's ``Nightline,'' and a monthly column in Esquire magazine. Greene recently turned up his 1964 diary, painstakingly kept on the advice of a journalism teacher who said the best way make oneself a good reporter was to keep a daily journal. Doing his best as a ``glorified rewrite man,'' he says, he has taken the cryptic sentence fragments, disjointed conversations and hurriedly written descriptions of emotions to reconstruct a publishable manuscript - a full, readable narrative on what might be called the purgatory of teendom: ``It was like restoring a cracked and faded old photograph,'' he says.
The result is ``Be True to Your School,'' (Atheneum, $18.95) - 365 days in the life of one high school boy in the middle of America in the middle of the century. On one level, the book is a document of pure nostalgia - a look at the year Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston, the Beatles performed on Ed Sullivan, and Peter, Paul, and Mary were still going strong. On another, it is a daily dissection of the hopes, loves, and fears of a fragile 17-year-old, riding the emotional roller coaster of dating, while trying to discover himself, ``achieve,'' and develop independence all at the same time.
The book represents a tableau of memories for past generations. ``It's easy to forget that at the beginning of 1964, the radical changes in musical styles, the sex revolution, the riots and campus activism, and Vietnam had yet to happen,'' Greene says. And it represents a chronicle of the teenage Everyman for the present: the incorrigible ``squareness'' of parents, the everpresent urge to sidestep authority. Greene says he has done his best not to stray from the spirit and sequence of events in the original diary, trying instead to ``retain the voice of the boy who kept that diary.''
There is near obsession with a girl named Lindy Lemmon, who dated Greene for three months one summer, then casually dropped him. There are the afternoons of cruising the neighborhood with his buddies, when the right tune played over the car radio makes him swoon. ``Are you in your daze again?'' asks buddy Chuck Shenk when the song, ``Little Deuce Coupe,'' comes on. ``I've got to snap out of this thing, but I can't seem to,'' Greene writes in his diary later that night.
There is the fear of becoming the laughing stock of the school for not winning a varsity letter in tennis: ``Please, God, give me that letter - without it I'm nothing again.'' And there are the inevitable attempts at social grace in awkward dating situations. On one occasion, Greene counts silently to one hundred, trying to get up the nerve to place his arm around his date.
Greene is not new to opening up his life in hopes of touching the universal with the particular. His ``attempt'' at chronicling his daughter's first year - and his first year as a father - landed his ``Good Morning Merry Sunshine'' on the New York Times best seller list for 17 weeks.
``When I found the diary again I realized that what I had here was something more valuable than money could buy - which was time preserved. I mean, we all tend to bathe our pasts in this warm glow of nostalgia, but I had it all down there in black and white what happened. One day full of heartache, the next full of joy.''
``If Bob Greene's diary doesn't take you back to high school, you didn't go,'' says fellow author Elmore Leonard in an apt quote from the book's dust jacket. ``But if you did, it doesn't matter when. You'll remember what it was like to be 17, to be happy, to be hurt, to fall in and out of love.''
Until now, the diary was a secret. ``That was something only girls did in 1964,'' Greene says. ``I wrote every night,'' he recalls. ``Notations were pretty much in the style of the late Walter Winchell - quick observations, bits of dialogue, pithy descriptions of the people I met and the places I went.''
Asked to relate the most interesting anecdote from the diary as he now looks back, Greene recounts the time he and friend Danny Dick rode the train to Cleveland, and took two buses to meet girls at an amusement park. ``We were standing by the ferris wheel and these girls come up and we all kind of looked at each other and talked for about 30 seconds and then the girls turned around and walked away. I mean they couldn't stand the sight of us! So we had ridden the train all the way to Cleveland for 30 seconds of getting shut down. It was humiliating, but at the same time I think it points out some of the frustrations of boys at that age.''
Coming from the all-white neighborhood of Bexley, Ohio, ``where teenagers didn't have to worry about where their allowance money was coming from,'' says Greene, his concerns were not about the great happenings of the era. ``My friends paid little attention to those things,'' he says. ``Probably most of us, teenagers or not, are like that. The real truths of our lives don't make the six o'clock news or the morning paper.''
His current book promotion tour took him back to Bexley, where he visited his old high school and saw a sign for a symposium on child abuse. ``It occurred to me that in 1964, that sign wouldn't have been there. It would have been a sign for the homecoming dance. We didn't care about issues.'' He says he and his friends hadn't ``even heard of drugs, much less used them. We had just three boundaries: those of our house, the school, and the suburb.
``Today's teenagers are much more aware of the outside world,'' he says, ``although I've started getting letters from 17-year-olds who say the emotions in the book are the same as what they're going through now.''
Greene says he has begun to get calls from all corners of the country from people who excitedly want to talk about their own high school days.
From `Be True to Your School' February 3: ``Chuck got a white '64 Impala convertible. He drove it to school today. That would be really something - to have your own car. He says I can drive it sometime, but that's not the same.''
February 9: ``The Beatles were on `Ed Sullivan.' They are simply the greatest thing ever to hit America. I thought I was impressed with them because of their records on the radio and their pictures in the paper, but that was nothing compared to seeing them on TV.''
February 10: ``This morning right before the bell to start homeroom I went into the boys' locker room. About twelve guys were all standing in front of the big mirror, trying to comb the front of their hair down on their foreheads. The only thing people are talking about is the Beatles ... the Ed Sullivan appearance changed everything ... it was funny to see guys with crew cuts and flatttops standing in front of that mirror, trying to make their hair look like Paul McCartney's.''
December 15: ``... went back to my house where [sister] Debby taught us how to play `The Name Game' ... a new song. It's actually pretty easy, once you know how. `Debby, Debby, Bo Bebby, Banana-Fana Fo Febby, Fe-Fi Mo-Mebby, Debby.' Or `Jack, Jack, Bo Back, Banana-Fana Fo Fack, Fe Fi Mo-Mack, Jack.'''