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  • NYS Writers Institute

Bill McKibben: An excerpt from "The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon"

We’re excited for Tuesday’s event with environmentalist / writer Bill McKibben. It has been 31 years since his previous visit to the NYS Writers Institute.

Bill McKibben

7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 18

Campus Center West Auditorium, University at Albany

University at Albany, 1400 Washington Avenue, Albany NY 12222

Free and open to the public. No registration required.

An excerpt from Bill McKibben’s The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened

Bill McKibben’s The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened

In my tenth year, in 1970, my family—my mom, my dad, my seven-year-old brother, and I—moved into the American suburbs. More precisely, we moved to the town of Lexington, Massachusetts, a community of thirty thousand people which sat a dozen miles outside Boston. Our home, which cost $30,000, was like a child’s drawing of a suburban home: a square block with a door and a window on the ground floor and two windows on the story above, one looking out from my bedroom and the other from Tom’s. A single big maple spread its branches over the front lawn and the driveway, dropping leaves on the maroon Plymouth that carried my father on his daily commute. We were as statistically average as it was possible to be, a near-perfect example of the white American middle class then in the process of rocketing to a prosperity—a widespread, shared, suburban standard of living—that the world had never before seen. We lived, and this is the truth, halfway down a leafy road called Middle Street.

So what the hell happened? How did we go from an America where that kind of modest paradise seemed destined to spread to more and more of the country to the doubtful nation we inhabit fifty years later: a society strained by bleak racial and economic inequality, where life expectancy was falling even before a pandemic that deepened our divisions, on a heating planet whose physical future is dangerously in question?

Since the suburb has dominated our landscape over those decades, some of the answers must lie there—and in the generations that grew up there, those of us baby boomers who still weigh so heavily on the political and financial life in the United States. As Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote, his fears as a young Black man were somehow “connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets.” That was my pot roast, and I’m convinced he’s right—that you can see some of the roots of what went wrong back in those shady streets of my boyhood. And not only with race, but also with democracy, and with the planet. I’m convinced, in fact, that Lexington, because it was both very typical and slightly set apart by its place in American history, provides an unusually sharp lens through which to view those times, and our time. I’m curious about what went so suddenly sour with American patriotism, American faith, and American prosperity—the flag, the cross, and the station wagon. I’m curious if any of that trinity can, or should, be reclaimed in the fight for a fairer future.

I’ve never thought my own history was much worth recounting, because it was mostly free of the angst and suffering that have anchored memoirs in recent years. That’s why for much of my life I’ve concentrated on telling the stories of others as best I can. But perhaps that very averageness is the thing that makes my own history a little useful, at least if we’re trying to understand what went wrong. This is as much memoir as I’m likely to write, but it’s as much the story of a place as of a person.

So let me tell you about two important events that happened in 1971, the year after we arrived in Lexington. I was aware of one of them at the time; the other I learned about only recently. In deference to Dr. Seuss, a literary staple of that era when books were already fighting a rearguard battle against TV, I will call those events Thing One and Thing Two, and they will be touchstones throughout this book. But to understand them, you need to understand the particular town they were set in. And if you didn’t live through that time, perhaps this short recounting of one town’s history will give you a feel for the truly remarkable rise of suburbia…

Join us Tuesday for this special event, free and open to the public.


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